"To bring people in inaccessible physical and emotional spaces" - Sam Wolson (Reeducated)
Part of the lineup for the Virtual Cinema Competition at SXSW Online 2021, Reeducated, directed by Sam Wolson and based on the research and reporting of Ben Mauk, is immersive journalism at its best: a VR piece that makes you physically feel the restrictions of the story it's telling and connects you deeply with the people and the situation it's talking about.
I clearly remember the first time I saw on the news the scenes of Isis destroying Palmyra, Hatra, and other ancient historical and religious sites that were part of the cultural heritage of Iraq and neighboring countries. In that moment, I think, we all realized something that stayed with us in the years that followed: those actions, in some way, were worse than killing, worse than terrorist attacks. Because what Isis did is one of the most terrible things that a human being can do to another: erase their memory, erase their identity, and tell them, “what you are, where you came from, what your life has been made of up until this moment... has no right to exist and those who’ll come after you won’t even know it was ever there”. Erasure of identity. Erasure of the soul.
It was a heartbreaking thing to watch and something that made me think often about the concept of freedom and how lucky I am to be able to express what I believe in and my identity, without fear of someone denying me my basic rights just because of who I am.
That's why, when I read about Reeducated in the lineup for the Virtual Cinema Competition at SXSW Online 2021, I knew right away that I had to know more. Not just out of curiosity about a situation I had never heard of, but because I felt it was my duty as a human being to at least acknowledge what some people are going through and thank those who allow us to find out about all this.
Reeducated “takes viewers inside a “reeducation” camp in Xinjiang, China, guided by the recollections of three men who were caught in what is likely the largest mass-internment drive of ethnic and religious minorities since the Second World War”.
Directed by Sam Wolson and based on Ben Mauk’s research and reporting, Reeducated is a VR documentary that accompanies the interactive New Yorker feature “Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State” and has received SXSW's Special Jury Recognition for Immersive Journalism in the Virtual Cinema category.
And indeed, this is a work of true journalism - the kind of journalism that can make a difference and change you at your core. But Reeducated is not only a deep and shocking reconstruction of a situation that most of us are unaware of. It is also a beautiful piece of art, both as an interactive feature and as a VR film.
The hand-drawn pen-and-brush illustrations of Vietnamese-Australian visual artist Matt Huynh and the beautiful work of Nicholas Rubin and Dirt Empire who animated them , along with Jon Bernson's sound editing that does wonders for immersion, convey the harshness of the situation with a poetic touch that exudes compassion and respect for all the people who are suffering this persecution and make you grateful for the freedom you have.
An effective choice in this regard is that the lack of freedom these people go through isn't just something you need to imagine while watching the scenes. Rather, it's something Reeducated tries to make you feel physically with its choice of 360 to tell the story. The lack of interactions, the feeling of constraint that 360 inspires are so consistent with what you're watching that even someone like me who isn't that big of a fan of 360 videos cannot imagine a more effective medium to tell this specific narrative.
The end, when the video switches from the drawings of the three main characters to the real faces of the people behind them – Erbaqyt Otarbai, Orynbek Koksebek, Amanzhan Seituly – is like a punch to the gut. A beautiful transition, accompanied by the “silence” of real life, which stayed with me even after the credits rolled, because it made it all even more real.
As well as the song that Erbaqyt Otarbai sings, which starts the VR film and closes the interactive feature: a choice that convey both the necessary differences between the two media on which this work is presented, and make them more human, less cold, as is always the risk in works like this.
We talked with director Sam Wolson about Reeducated and the way VR and immersive technologies are impacting journalism. Here’s what he told us.
From photography to VR: a journey in immersive journalism
AGNESE - Your work as an immersive film director and photographer is impressive... and brave. You've tackled very difficult subjects and received grants to pursue eye-opening projects. How did you first learn about immersive journalism? And what drew you toward it, rather than choosing a more traditional route?
SAM WOLSON - Before shifting to working as an immersive filmmaker, I worked as a documentary photographer. Over the years of working internationally, I became disillusioned with the role that photography could play in the larger scope of the media and journalism ecosystem. To me, photography became incredibly restrictive, both in its form, distribution, and visual language, in addition to being entrenched in fairly problematic power dynamics. In no way do I see VR as solving a lot of these problems but I saw an opportunity to be involved in a frontier medium that I could be a part of shaping rather than working against a system that had 100+ years of history. For VR, every project and film I work on is trying to do something new, whether that's a new technological tool, storytelling technique or something else.
I also saw the incredible impact VR could have as a communication medium. My first major VR film was a collaboration with Emblematic Group / Nonny de la Peña. I feel so lucky to have started working in this field, being guided by her and her team. My co-director on the project, Trevor Snapp, convinced Nonny to take a huge chance on us and loan us an early 360 camera, at that time a bunch of go-pros strapped together into a 3D printed ball monstrosity, which we took to the Nuba mountains of Sudan were an ongoing, relatively unknown, conflict had been simmering for years. We spent weeks on the ground jumping in and out of fox holes, hiding from Antonov planes dropping barrel bombs and working with people across the affected community. Generally speaking it was hard to know exactly how the project would turn out.
About a year later, after the film was finished, beyond the festival premieres and excitement, I remember a few moments that really solidified the power of what we had made and convinced me to work with VR more exclusively. One was at SXSW, seeing people watch our film. People from all walks of life would come through, strap on the headset and come out of the experience 10 minutes later deeply moved. I remember a tall man in a suit watching the film and having a near-existential crisis. In some ways, this scared me and still does. It made me think about where and how and why these types of projects should be shown. In other ways I was in awe of something happening that I had hoped my photography would do for years. I think it's really a testament to the medium more than our storytelling in some ways.
At the origins of Reeducated
A. - Reeducated is a shocking insight on a situation that was completely unknown to me. I literally devoured the immersive article on The New Yorker and was very touched by the meaning – but also the beauty and poetry - of the VR experience. What made you and Ben Mauk decide to work together on this specific story and why in VR?
S. W. - Ben and I were both living in Berlin and were friends through the journalism world. We had talked a few times about his past reporting and projects. He had been reporting on Xinjiang for a while. On a few occasions, we discussed if there would be a way to do something with VR. I remember being weary but excited about the idea. It can be really hard, expensive and time-consuming to get VR projects off the ground and I was just coming off a long journey with my Fukushima project. But when Ben realised that he had found three people who had all been at the same camp at the same time, we knew that we had something both important in terms of reporting on the topic and something that would lend itself to VR and that's when we approached The New Yorker.
One of the limitations of reporting on this subject is that you can't report freely in Xinjiang. So most reporting comes from satellite images, leaked documents, leaked videos, or individual witness testimonies. I feel like a lot of this, although incredibly important, made the subject somewhat inaccessible to a larger audience. Also from a journalistic perspective, individual testimonies are important but hard to verify. So when we had three people who crossed paths at the camps and could describe different overlapping details of the same spaces or experiences, it was exciting. At the time, I had also been reading a lot about a research group called Forensic Architecture that has done amazing investigations using limited visual and digital scraps to create incredibly damning and detailed investigations. So the idea of being able to do in-depth interviews and then reconstructing the spaces based on a diversity of materials didn't seem crazy. VR thus became a perfect medium to bring people into these otherwise inaccessible physical and emotional spaces.
Working on Reeducated: artistic and narrative choices
A. - Reeducated is based on hours of filming and interviews, so what we read and watched is just a small part of what happened. Can you tell us how you worked through all of this material to create a 20-minute VR experience?
The film is based on over a dozen hours of interviews with our three main subjects, Erbaqyt Otarbai, Orynbek Koksebek and Amanzhan Seiituly. To construct the main story arc, Ben and I went back and forth on almost 20 versions of the script. It was hard to figure out how to tell a story with three different people's voices while also making sure we were shedding light on some of the more mundane elements of the camp, such as what the rooms looked like, and the daily routines of detainees in the classrooms and cells. At the same time, our post-production team, led by Nicholas Rubin and his studio Dirt Empire, started working on tests of how we could actually construct the VR world. It was important to us from the beginning that the world felt emotional but grounded. Matt's art style was a perfect means to marry those two elements. Every single surface you see in the film is a brush and ink hand-crafted element from Matt that was scanned and placed in a 3D world built by Nick and his team. It's sort of like standing inside of a giant hand-animated diorama.
A. - What were the biggest challenges you and your creative/technical team encountered?
S. W. - One of the biggest technical challenges we faced was trying to figure out how to place flat elements, such as the characters, all around you in every scene, and have the perspective look correct, in 3D 360 space. The way we solved this was by putting 3D dummies into the scenes. This gave Matt a reference point for how a body would look in 3D from the camera's perspective. Then he would hand draw those elements, often several frames of those elements for the animations, and we would place it back into the exact same position. So when you watch the film, there is a lot of forced perspective going on. It was a bit of a nightmare to work out.
The sound design was also a huge thing for us to figure out. Our incredible sound artist Jon Bernson scored, mixed and built the ambisonic world for the film. Besides the singing and the VO, everything had to be created from scratch. Ambisonic sound became an incredible tool for us in the film, but it took a while to figure out where and how it best served the story. For instance, in the cell or in the field scenes, it really helped us get the viewer to look in certain directions. But in other cases, it acts as more of a sound-bed on a more subtle level underneath other elements on screen. The ambisonics are strange because they are quite a challenge to work with and on the production side still somewhat cutting edge. And from a viewer's perspective, if it works correctly, they may not even notice it, because it emulates how sound already functions in the world.
A. - The choice of Matt Huynh as artist of the experience was perfect. His art, in its “simplicity”, is really powerful and goes straight to your heart. Also, visually, Reeducated is a work that is very different from After the Fallout. Could you comment on this stylistic choice and tell us what about Matt's art caught your eye?
S. W. - After the Fallout attempted to push a different stylistic and storytelling extreme for 360 films. For that project, my co-director Dominic Nahr and I were really interested in what happens when you lose a lot of the narrative tropes that are extensions of traditional documentary filmmaking, such as VO or linear narrative structure. We wanted to find a different way to approach the emotional intimacy that seemed unique to VR and appropriate for life in Fukushima. I also had the privilege to build off of Dominic's near decade-long relationships with the people of Fukushima. So the amount of trust we had from the people we worked with in the communities there was truly special.
For Reeducated, we were also able to open certain doors based on the results of Ben's years of reporting but we could obviously not film in the camps. Because of this limitation, we needed to find a stylistic voice for the film that would be lyrical, emotional, human and descriptive. We looked at a few artists but Matt's work hit all those major points for us. We had to balance indepthly reported reconstructions of the spaces in VR with the emotional journey of the characters. Matt's art style was a perfect means to marry those two elements. It allowed us to work within a visual space that moves from the more literal to something closer to German expressionism or film noir without feeling totally out of place. It took a long time to figure out how to balance these elements and make them seamlessly move back and forth.
This also had a lot to do with how we staged the film. I felt strongly that we should not move the camera at all throughout the project. The viewer should feel stuck with the world moving around them. I think this is also a great reason to use 360 video rather than 6DOF--limiting the mobility of the viewer becomes a storytelling tool rather than a limitation of the medium. But it also means you have to get really creative about how you move from scene to scene.
On the future of journalism
A. - Reeducated will certainly leave a sign on the audience and on the readers, making them aware of things and, hopefully, making us all understand a bit more what freedom really means. But it may also impact the narrative on a bigger, political level too and bring some justice and peace to those who went (and are going) through this situation. What is your biggest hope for this work?
S. W. - My hope for the work is pretty much the same hope I have for all my projects -- that people take the time to engage with the topic and want to learn more about what's happening.
A. - Reeducated was supported by the Pulitzer Center, by ONA / Journalism 360 and by the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism, so the question comes automatically: what is the future of journalism, in your opinion?
S. W. - In some ways I see the future of journalism as the same as its past. The foundations of journalism have not and should not change. The fundamentals of reporting a project like this one, despite the new tools, are really the same as they would have been for something 10 or 20 years previously: going out into the world, talking to experts, collecting stories, fact-checking, etc. I think what will change in the future of journalism are questions of distribution, financing and the incorporation of new tools. If journalism is to have a future, it needs to keep evolving within all of those spaces.
Reeducated premièred this week at SXSW Online 2021 in the Virtual Cinema category and is now available on desktop and mobile via newyorker.com or YouTube. We also recommend checking out the New Yorker's beautiful interactive feature that accompanies it, “Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State”.