Is virtual reality a tool for social change?
In the world of film, VR has become a powerful tool for tackling pressing social issues. It’s capable of presenting hard truths in ways that the average person can easily comprehend and connect with. However, its greatest power is its ability to inspire action.
Why Virtual Reality?
The fully immersive experience that VR provides makes it an excellent medium for storytelling.
It cuts off viewers from the outside world. Unlike traditional films, which set a safe distance between you and the story, VR puts viewers right in the middle of it. It creates visceral experiences that enable you to connect with characters in a much deeper way. Moreover, it eliminates the typical distractions that you encounter in the cinema, allowing you to focus on the story.
Depending on the point of view, you can watch the story unfold from the perspective of a character. You can walk in someone else’s shoes. You’ll feel empathy—not just sorrow—for the real lives represented in the film.
How Virtual Reality Documentaries Are Highlighting Social Issues
One of the latest VR documentaries you can check out right now is called Reeducated, which debuted at SXSW back in March. Through this film, The New Yorker exposes the harsh truths inside the Xinjiang prison camps. It accompanies their investigative piece called “Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State,” a multimedia report detailing ethnic and religious persecution in China.
The internment camps in China have been a well-kept secret for quite some time now. Apart from survivor accounts and satellite imagery, the world knows so little about the reality inside these camps. That is, until now, with the debut of Reeducated.
Just before the COVID-19 lockdown, reporter Ben Mauk, director Sam Wolson, and illustrator Matt Huynh traveled to Central Asia. There, they spoke with dozens of survivors of the mass internment campaign.
The documentary, however, only uses the testimonies of three Kazakh men who survived the internment camps.
Huynh captured their stories in pen-and-brush drawings. Animator Nicholas Rubin—with the help of Jon Bernson, who composed the spatial audio—reconstructed the illustrations in a three-dimensional space.
Using a VR headset such as Oculus Rift, you can step into the prison yards, cells, and classrooms in the camps. Since there are no photos or video footage of the camps, VR makes a great alternative. It brings viewers directly into the story, allowing them to connect with these people. Moreover, it conveys the stories with clear and powerful emotions.
Virtual Reality and the Power of Experience
VR documentaries are nothing new. In 2014, Zero Point was released as the first 360-degree movie made for the Oculus Rift. It’s about immersive filmmaking and follows the researchers, developers, and pioneers of virtual reality.
Over the years, there has been an increasing number of VR documentaries, which focus on a myriad of subjects and stories. Some of them are like Reeducated in that they tackle pressing issues.
Traveling While Black is one such example. It illustrates the US’ long history of restrictions for Black Americans. At the same time, it shows viewers how they can make a difference in their communities.
Other VR films illustrate human experiences that might be foreign to the average person. Notes on Blindness, The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes, and Zero Days are a few examples. As VR becomes widely available, filmmakers might use it more not just to highlight pressing issues but also to encourage action.