Is virtual reality the future of documentary films?
Is virtual reality a tool for social change?
In the world of cinema, virtual reality has become a powerful tool to tackle pressing social issues. He is able to present hard truths in a way the average person can easily understand and connect with. However, her greatest power is her ability to inspire action.
Why virtual reality?
The fully immersive experience virtual reality offers makes it a great way to tell stories.
It cuts viewers off from the outside world. Unlike traditional movies, which establish a safe distance between you and the story, VR puts viewers at the heart of it. It creates visceral experiences that allow you to connect with the characters in a much deeper way. Plus, it eliminates the typical distractions you encounter at the movies, allowing you to focus on the story.
See also: Virtual reality documentary tells the story of the group that changed history in Eastern Europe
Depending on the point of view, you can watch the story unfold from a character’s point of view. You can walk in someone else’s shoes. You will feel empathy, not just sadness, for the real lives portrayed in the film.
How virtual reality documentaries shed light on social issues
One of the latest VR documentaries you can check out right now is called Re-educated, which debuted at SXSW in March. Through this film, The New Yorker exposes the harsh truths inside Xinjiang prison camps. It accompanies their investigative piece entitled “Inside Xinjiang Prison State, A multimedia report detailing the ethnic and religious persecution in China.
The internment camps in China have been a well-kept secret for some time now. Aside from survivor accounts and satellite imagery, the world knows so little about the reality inside these camps. It is, until now, with the beginning of Re-educated.
Just before the COVID-19 lockdown, journalist Ben Mauk, director Sam Wolson and illustrator Matt Huynh visited Central Asia. There they spoke with dozens of survivors of the mass internment campaign.
The documentary, however, uses only the testimonies of three Kazakh men who survived the internment camps.
Huynh captured their stories in pen and brush drawings. Host Nicholas Rubin, with help from Jon Bernson, who composed the spatial audio, reconstructed the illustrations in three-dimensional space.
Using a VR headset such as the Oculus Rift, you can enter prison yards, cells, and camp classrooms. Since there are no photos or video footage of the camps, VR is a great alternative. It takes viewers right into the story, allowing them to connect with these people. Moreover, he 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 film made for the Oculus Rift. It is immersive cinema and follows researchers, developers and pioneers of virtual reality.
Over the years, there have been an increasing number of virtual reality documentaries, which focus on a myriad of topics and stories. Some of them are like Re-educated in that they tackle pressing problems.
See also: Shaun MacGillivray discusses IMAX and VR movies
Traveling in black is an example. It illustrates the long history of restrictions imposed on black Americans by the United States. 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 skin of the ranger, and Zero days are a few examples. As virtual reality becomes widely available, filmmakers could use it more not only to highlight pressing issues, but also to spur action.