Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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Watch out for virtual reality activism

Watch out for virtual reality activism

The promise of virtual reality can be broken down to a basic rhythm: strap a plastic brick to your face, and prepare to exit your safe, mundane space to enter a fantastic new world. But for many filmmakers, virtual reality isn’t about escapism. Nor is it safety and tranquility. Instead, it’s about confrontation and activism. Take “Factory Farm” by Danfung Dennis, for example. As the title suggests, the film is a grim, harrowing journey through an industrial pig slaughterhouse.

“It’s very disturbing to choose to face death,” Dennis says. “It takes courage.” If you can muster the gall to enter Factory Farm, you will soon find yourself in a harrowing camp of death and suffering, guided by animal rights investigator Jose Valle. But Valle stays at the margins of the film while the suffering takes center stage. You are given a tour of the whole machinery of death: from the gestation crates, where the pigs are kept and bred; to the killing room, where they are slaughtered before you, and then on to the processing tables where their corpses are carved up.  

Dennis says that the presence of Valle, though always at the edges of the film, ended up serving as more than a guide as was initially intended—for many viewers, he became the safety anchor. “Without him it would have been too overwhelming. Too brutal,” Dennis says. He explains that almost every viewer begins each scene by looking around for Valle; his presence would reassure them enough to stay with the experience. Dennis is impressed that most viewers who had the guts to undertake this journey stuck with it to the end. “I realized that this is really happening in the world and I needed to see it, so I stuck with it no matter how hard it was to watch,” said viewer Rosa Grace.

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But why make a film so challenging that you need a virtual guide to encourage viewers to finish it? For Dennis, the answer is to broaden the viewer’s empathy and to place her in the darker corners of the world that are often treated with indifference or deliberately hidden away. For all our creature comforts, the world is a brutal place, and VR can pull the curtain back on these places like never before.

By placing the viewer at the center of a scene that unfolds around them in 360-degree 3D stereoscopic film, virtual reality journalism has the ability to deliver an intensive emotional experience in a way that other mediums simply can’t. Dennis notes that during the many public demonstrations of Factory Farm that he conducted with Valle, many viewers would emerge from the virtual slaughterhouse disturbed but had managed to hold it together—however, when they saw Valle standing there beside them in real life, they would burst into tears. Dennis believes this is because of a sudden awareness that the “virtual” reality they just witnessed was, in fact, “real” all along. Many viewers, he says, recall their experience of the film as a personal memory—rather than as something they simply watched.

placing the viewer amid suffering in an attempt to elicit intense empathy

It’s in moments like these that Dennis sees the potential for VR journalists to transform the enormous empathy that VR can generate into compassion and inspire people to action—to become, in effect, an activist. Dennis’s film is one of several that are now widely available on VR platforms that feature animal rights, including “I, Chicken” (about a chicken factory farm) and “Factory Farm 360”. Of course, shock videos are nothing new for animal rights activists, but VR is able to elevate them to a level that can jar even the most jaded veteran of disturbing films.

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And animal rights is far from the only difficult subject for “activist” documentary films in VR. “My Mother’s Wing” by Vrse is an intimate look at a Palestinian woman mourning the death of her children in the 2014 Israeli offensive in Gaza. “6×9” drops the viewer into the torturous physical space of solitary confinement. Other films explore domestic violence, date rape, war, and the Syrian refugee crisis. These films are artfully composed in a way that prioritizes the experience and presence of the moment, rather than offering a didactic opinion like more traditional activist films. In this way, these films all share common thread, unique to the medium of VR: an emphasis on placing the viewer amid suffering in an attempt to elicit intense empathy for the subjects. “Now that we can actually place people within suffering,” Dennis said, “We will be able to generate or evoke true empathy.”

Dennis hopes the intensity of experience in VR can inspire people to act on the empathy it stirs; to change our world by shedding light on the darker corners. “Shifting people from indifference to compassion will actually have a tremendous change in these dark places,” he says. He is among a growing cohort of filmmakers who look at VR and don’t see it as mere escapism—but as a powerful new technology that can inspire people to act on the hurt we are usually happy to ignore.

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