With a background in documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism, Zahra Rasool heads AJ Contrast, Al Jazeera’s woman-led, Emmy-nominated immersive storytelling studio. The studio’s projects center urgent stories about communities of color—their latest work, Still Here, is a multimedia documentary exploring the relationship between gentrification and the prison system through the story of Jasmine, a character returning home to Harlem after 15 years behind bars. Incorporating both AR and VR components—and magical and verité aesthetics—Still Here premiered at Sundance 2020 to widespread acclaim.
Zahra told us about how she came to the world of immersive journalism, the process of co-creating the narrative for Still Here with the Women’s Prison Association of New York, and why the world of immersive storytelling needs to empower diverse voices.
Can you tell us about your childhood and when you knew you wanted to be a storyteller and artist?
I spent the first 18 years of my life in Mumbai. I grew up in a very politically active family, so we discussed the news, what was happening internationally all the time. My father made my brother and I read the newspaper every morning, and we had to discuss what we read during dinnertime. That was a daily practice in our house.
My parents are artists. My mom’s a painter specializing in contemporary Arabic calligraphy art. My father designs furniture. Art was embedded in our DNA. With us discussing what we read in the newspaper, I was very aware at a young age that as I was growing up, there were wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was what we watched on CNN International or BBC.
I noticed that many people on screen looked like me and shared a similar culture and religion, but what I saw on TV did not match my personal experience. A lot of the narrative on the news was how Muslim women are oppressed; how Islam is a backward religion, but I grew up with strong women around me. My dad always told me, “If you want to change the narrative, you’ve got to be part of the industry doing that.” At a young age, I knew I wanted to be a storyteller because I wanted to reclaim the narrative of my people and my culture.
How has this itinerant history and trajectory shaped your path as a storyteller?
I grew up Muslim, a minority religion in Mumbai. I had not traveled to the US before coming to the University of Missouri, which I picked because it was the best journalism school. My perception of the US was based on what I’d seen on screens. I thought, Missouri will be exactly like NYC. Lo and behold, that wasn’t the case.
Coming at a young age and having no family here made studying in the Midwest incredibly tough. My university was predominantly white, and there were very few Muslims studying there. People’s interactions with me were based on what they’d seen in the news about Muslim people, about women of color. I was confronted with my identity in a way that I never had been before. In India, everybody looks like me. We have the same skin tone, different variations. I’m not saying there’s no racism there—it just manifests in a less visible way here.
I double-majored in broadcast journalism and international studies. Part of my course was anchoring at the local TV station, and it was painful. Everybody around you is white, and your accent is very different from their accent. It’s uncomfortable when you are expected to conform and change your image and voice.
Being confronted for the first time that I looked and dressed differently from everybody around me was a powerful experience—by no means was it easy. I was depressed in the first few months—all I wanted to do was go back home. But studying in Columbia—this small college town in the Midwest, surrounded by cornfields—I experienced a part of the US that many living in the cities don’t experience. I did my undergrad and my master’s there, so I spent a significant amount of time in Columbia.
I did a semester in London and summer school in South Korea. I traveled the world through my education, deployments as a journalist, and with my mother when she traveled for her art shows. This all informed who I am as a person. I’ve experienced many different points of view.
INSPIRED BY INVESTIGATIVE STORYTELLING
Gistory was your first project that included a web-based interactive component. What compelled you to start this project?
My education trajectory does not conform to what a traditional Indian person’s education career would be. I did a semester of my master’s and realized I wanted to get real-world experience. So I started interning at Al Jazeera, which, like many other news channels at that time, was very slow to adopt social platforms for storytelling. I was frustrated by that.
I told my professor that I’d consider returning if I could work on a startup as my master’s project. I recruited two computer science students and a friend who was a designer. We started building Gistory, like “gist of the story.” The idea was to give the gist of breaking news stories worldwide, with people living in those parts of the world telling them.
There was a 300-word summary of an earthquake in Delhi but written by somebody who’s from there. We’d verify that news through local sources, correct it for tone and voice, and then put the story brief on an interactive map of the world. You could visualize where the event happened.
What did some of your initial encounters with immersive storytelling look like at RYOT?
After sleeping on friends’ couches and living the startup life [laughs], I got an offer from RYOT to come on board as a managing director. They were working in emerging technologies for storytelling, a space I hadn’t worked in before. I didn’t know anything about VR and AR at that time. It felt like a good challenge.
RYOT had three parts: branded content, films, and editorial. I managed the editorial. Three-sixty videos were starting to get popular, and my job was to determine the type of projects we would take on.
Four months in, The Huffington Post acquired RYOT. So my job description changed quite a bit, from managing the editorial for RYOT completely to now working part of The Huffington Post team. I was still creating editorial content in 360°, but now within a much larger corporation.
One of the most memorable projects was a 360° video from a Trump rally. I went and interviewed people at a Trump rally. Videos like that have been done a lot—at that time, it was novel. We also went to Puerto Rico to report on the economic crisis there.
Before joining RYOT, I didn’t know how to use a VR camera or edit VR footage. I learned on the job. RYOT very good at using the technology, but that journalistic perspective was what I was tasked with bringing into the storytelling.
At what stage was AJ Contrast in when you joined?
While I was at RYOT, I got increasingly frustrated by what I was seeing. Many stories that used the medium were told about communities of color or the developing world. It felt voyeuristic, like, Let’s take you inside a refugee camp in Jordan, so you can experience what it’s like to live there. I noticed many narratives crafted in this medium were through a white lens and created specifically for a white audience.
I’ve seen that in the industry time and again, whether in investigative journalism or fiction movies. I was frustrated that the same issues in other parts of the media industry were being replicated in the immersive space. Now even more severely in this medium because of its immersiveness.
When Al Jazeera Digital wanted to create an immersive storytelling studio, they had heard about the work I was doing and asked if I would be interested in imagining what that would look like. I presented what I would like to do if I came on board—and how I would like to do it.
I wanted to craft an editorial that collaborated with the people whose stories we were telling—to me, that was what was missing in the work done at other places. It was an editorial approach that told the stories of communities hit hardest by inequality, but through collaborating with them to tell their stories. I wanted to hire my entire team, and they agreed. I joined Al Jazeera Digital to create AJ Contrast.
It stems from the feeling I had growing up that people who share my background were not represented, and wanting to change that. I strive my best to make sure somebody else doesn’t feel that same way. I try to rectify that in every single project that I do. That’s the essence of who I am.
What do you think an immersive documentary can do for telling co-collaborated stories with communities hit hardest by inequality, compared to a traditional documentary?
I enjoy working in the immersive medium, but I always caution that immersive technology is just a storytelling tool. Some stories are more powerful when told in those mediums. At the end of the day, the focus is always the story that I’m trying to tell. I just happen to do it in VR or AR.
It is incredibly important to ensure that a diverse set of people is using these immersive technologies. What happened initially in the industry is that, because the technologies are expensive and required a certain skillset, it was only used by a tiny group of people with a particular worldview. So you got those stories being told. With every AJ Contrast project, we make sure that those tools are being employed by people who would not have had the opportunity to use them. We need those stories to be told.
Just because certain communities are hit hard by a certain lack of access to resources doesn’t mean that they should not know that these tools exist to tell the stories. It’s such a great way to inspire younger people; to get them excited.
For AJ Contrast, we’ve done two documentaries in Yemen. We worked with local Yemeni journalists who we trained on how to use 360° cameras. I understand telling a story in 360° is not their priority, but now they have a new tool to use if they need it. They can continue to train other younger people in the country and increase their knowledge and skill base. That’s how you pass storytelling on from generation to generation, through the narratives and tools we have in our tool kit. I shouldn’t be the only one who knows how to use them. Others should, especially those less privileged than I am.
It sounds like the educational process is so seamlessly integrated into the storytelling and editorial process.
We spend more time at AJ Contrast doing that than creating stories. To me, it’s more important.
In general, how does a project come to fruition at AJ Contrast?
Sometimes, freelancers pitch us, and we decide which story is good for our audience. For some documentaries done in collaboration with other institutions or organizations, it’s a conversation.
They come to us and say, “We are working on refugee rights in Jordan or deforestation in Malaysia. What story can we tell?” We then come up with the angle that would be best suited for us—our stories are in the social justice and human rights space. That would be a collaborative discussion regarding their needs and what we can say from a journalistic perspective. The two Yemen documentaries, the initial Rohingya documentary, and the Uyhigur documentaries are the urgent issues of our time and need to be told. Those are funded by AJ Contrast’s editorial budget. Those are decisions that we make ourselves.
THE IMMERSIVE WORLD OF STILL HERE
Still Here was special because—we wanted to do a story that was important to young people in the United States. Al Jazeera has a huge audience in the US, but it also has a massive international audience. For many of the stories we try to tell, we ask how it is interesting for an American audience and relevant to our global audience?
We thought of gentrification because it’s an issue that many young people worldwide can relate to. As we dug deeper into the issue of gentrification in the American context, we realized that gentrification is so closely tied to incarceration. We couldn’t just touch upon incarceration—it’s a huge topic in itself. So we decided to tell the story about the intertwining of gentrification and incarceration. That was the genesis for Still Here.
What led you to incorporate both VR and AR components into Still Here?
We decided to tell the story of incarceration through interactive VR. We were focusing on the process of re-entry. It felt apt to use VR because when somebody re-enters, the idea they are free is not entirely true. Even though they’re coming out of prison, their lives are still so affected by the systems in place, the lack of resources they have, and the other obstacles that don’t allow them to fully integrate into society. There’s this illusion of freedom. They’re free, but they’re not really free.
That’s what VR is, too. When you put somebody in a headset, you think you can go anywhere; you can move anywhere you want. But we—the developers, the producers, the directors—decided how much freedom we’re giving you. We set those bounds. So the metaphor of restriction within the VR headset and what it is like to re-enter fits well in that medium.
We included augmented reality because we wanted users to feel like they were on a street in Harlem while listening to the audio story; to see the changes happening around them. The AR filter afforded that. The photographs, graphics, animations, and journalism included in those filters give an in-depth, historical perspective of gentrification that complements the fictional narrative. It was a very conscious decision to use VR and AR.
At what point did the collaboration with the Women’s Prison Association come into the process?
The collaboration with the WPA was there from the start, and it is why Still Here is what it is. I cannot emphasize enough that over 50 people worked on the project. Yes, I am one of the project’s co-creators—Sarah Springer is the other co-creator—but we also had so many producers and creatives—like Naima Ramos-Chapman, who wrote and directed the 360° videos, and Carvell Wallace, who wrote the script for the audio story.
Once we decided on the format, we decided to tell the story through a composite character—one that would be a collection of the experiences of different women—because it will afford us a lot more creativity to tell the story. That’s where we developed a partnership with the Women’s Prison Association. That was the first thing we did. We met with the women.
My first workshop with them taught them about VR—showing them how videos are made, what post-production looks like. Trying on headsets, too. With time, we storyboarded the script with them and included their feedback in the drafts. Some were present on set when we were filming the 360° videos. They were part of the post-production process, as well, and two of them were present for the premiere at Sundance. These are women who’ve been part of the project from start to end, and they’re still part of my life. They’ve been incredible.
My first workshop with them taught them about VR—showing them how videos are made, what post-production looks like. Trying on headsets, too. With time, we slowly brought in the scripts, which they helped write. Some were present on the sets when we were filming the 360° videos. They were part of the post-production process, as well, and present at Sundance. These are women who’ve been part of the project from start to end, and they’re still part of my life. They’ve been incredible.
I’m curious to know about the relationship between documentary and fiction in Still Here. There are many marvelous supernatural, or speculative, or fictional elements in the VR clips.
This project pushed the boundaries of the journalism we do at Al Jazeera. If anybody knows Al Jazeera, they are a serious, hard-hitting news organization. They haven’t done anything like that before. But while we are the innovation studio, and we can take those liberties, we were intentional in our innovation. For me, visual treatment and how something looks are as important as the narrative that we are crafting.
We wanted it to be a composite character to include the stories of several women, not just one woman’s experience. If we did a composite character, it had to be scripted. We also wanted to show the anxieties, fears, and obstacles without being too on-the-nose. My biggest concern was, “Am I creating this project for the non-Black community?” If there is a Black person who’s had this experience or had a close one go through this experience, will this project be relevant to them? Will they be interested in watching it? If it’s too on-the-nose, they’ll be like, “Why am I watching this? This is my experience.”
That’s happened to me so many times. There have been projects that I have seen—for example, about the difficulty of entering the US every time you go through immigration—that I’ve watched. I’d think, Wait, why am I watching this again? This is my experience every time I’m at JFK. So I wanted it to also be meaningful to people who’ve had the experience, for them to appreciate the different aspects of it—whether the narrative, the storytelling, the direction. If we did a straight documentary, it would feel less relevant to people who had that experience.
How did you balance incorporating the narrative aspects—both fictional and investigative—with the XR technologies in Still Here?
I wanted people to write the story who had the relevant experience. Even if they didn’t know how to use the technologies, we would bridge that gap. Naima had only worked in VR once, and Carvell had never worked in the AR medium, so we spent a lot of time educating both of them about the technologies.
Naima’s personal story was that her father served 15 years incarcerated. She came with that breadth of knowledge and personal connection to the story. It was collaborative. Along with Naima, Sarah and I decided what the story arc should be since we were crafting the interactivity. So much of the process was, “This doesn’t work for the interactivity. Let’s go back and write something else.”
We decided what story makes sense—of course, using the women’s experiences that we had interviewed so robustly before Naima even took a stab at writing the script. The women’s stories are the basis of the entire script.
In the VR piece, we have the 360° videos; then, we have the audio snippets attached to the animated infographics. All of the infographics and audio pieces are based on our journalism. Through the 360° videos, we are telling you one woman’s story, but then we are zooming you out, and through the infographics and audio, we’re telling you, “This is her story, but there are thousands of other people who are facing similar issues.”
With the AR, we’ve done a similar thing, where you Jasmine’s personal narrative, crafted by Carvell. Through the photographics, animations, and graphics that we have in the piece, we’re showing you the historical context—how what you see today is connected to what happened during slavery or in the Civil Rights era. We need to do that journalism to draw those connections.
In terms of audience, reception, and getting the stories back to the communities that helped create them, how do you think about the distribution process?
We had many plans for showcasing Still Here. Unfortunately, all of them have been put on a back seat because of COVID-19. Distribution still is important to me because access to projects like this is limited. We wanted to show that we can do it differently—not just in pre-production, production, but also in distribution. I was able to show that in the production and post.
I envisioned this three-tiered distribution system for Still Here, where on the top of the pyramid are the film festivals and museum spaces around the world that we were going to showcase Still Here. The second tier was collaborating with public spaces—places like community centers, or churches—to showcase this project. We have to take the project to where the community is—people living in low-income communities are not going to come to a gallery or a film festival to watch this project. There are very few people who go to those kinds of spaces. So we thought, how can we set up the project in already-frequented places?
In the third tier, we would have a traveling van that would station itself outside public spaces in communities around the city. Anybody could line up and go inside the traveling van and watch the experience. The idea there was: how do we take it to the community, rather than expecting people to come to us?
Looking forward, what do you hope to see more of in this realm of immersive storytelling and justice-oriented storytelling?
I would love to see more collaboration happen—with the community; within mediums. Distrust in the media has been increasing. So has the polarization in this country. The only way to tackle those problems is to collaborate with people whose stories we are telling. It’s good to get excited about technology and new tools, but it is about people at the end of the day, and it is about their stories.
We’ve got to make sure we’re doing a good job at being representative and authentic of people’s stories, especially when people share their stories with us. We’ve got to ensure that we are upholding the trust that people have given us in a righteous, just, and equitable way. You can be using the most advanced tech and do the most amazing immersive work with it, but if we’re not collaborating with the oppressed, suffering and those with the least power who are at the center of our stories, then those tools are not of much use. I would love to see more of that being done in the immersive space.