To tell certain stories, the journalist needs to think outside the box. For University of Michigan alum Sam Wolson, outside the box meant inside the immersive world of virtual reality.
“Reeducated,” which premiered last week at SXSW Online and won the Special Jury Recognition for Immersive Journalism, is a hand-illustrated virtual reality documentary that tells the stories of three men imprisoned together in one of China’s so-called reeducation camps for members of the Uighur minority.
By 2018, an estimated 1 million members of the ethnic minority group were held in camps (which now number over 380) in the Xinjiang region. Xinjiang is China’s largest region, located in the northwest and bordering several countries. Purportedly detained for “reeducation,” the majority-Muslim Uighur population is currently subject to traumas in the largest mass-internment since World War II. As of February 2021, the campaign against the Uighurs is now formally recognized as a genocide by the United States and the Netherlands.
“Reeducated” is supported by the New Yorker and is supplemented by interactive multimedia journalism offering rigorous reporting on the Uighur detention camps. Wolson’s film brings a part of this larger story to life. From over 12 hours of interviews with the three former detainees, Orynbek Koksebek, Erbaqyt Otarbai and Amanzhan Seituly, the film recreates their experiences from memory. Alternating between graphic novel-like narrative illustration and expressionistic flair, the animation immerses the viewer in emotion.
The film (and the article) is entirely hand-drawn by Matt Huynh, to incredible effect. Because truthfully recreating these spaces was essential to the success of both the article and the film, Huynh was an active participant in the reporting process.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Wolson reflected on this experience: “During all of those interviews, (Huynh) was sitting in the back of the room and actually doing live sketches of the men.” He then followed up for answers to questions about the layout of the room and the appearance of furniture, cameras and televisions: “We did really meticulous recording to reconstruct those spaces.”
Wolson — who majored in film at LSA — was also co-Managing Photo Editor for The Daily, and credits these experiences with preparing him to “straddle this space between documentary photography, storytelling journalism and … emerging technology.”
The author of the New Yorker feature, Ben Mauk, was a friend of Wolson’s when the two lived in Berlin. They had discussed a potential immersive documentary project to tell this story, but felt that they didn’t have the right framework at the time.
“There has to be a really good reason to tell the story in this way … it wasn’t until (Mauk) found three people who had been at the same camp at the same time and had overlapping experiences and overlapping understandings of the architecture of the spaces that we realized: ‘This was something that … VR would be uniquely suited to,’” Wolson said.
Making the film involved scanning thousands of Huynh’s individual drawings into what Wolson described as “a giant diorama … around the 3-D camera in the computer.” Unlike 3-D Computer Generated Imagery, Huynh’s pen and brushstrokes emphasize the humanity of this story while conveying the fact that these scenes are memories.
The result, according to Wolson, is “using some of the most cutting-edge storytelling tools that you can use, but we’re bridging that sort of humanity by going back to some of the earliest versions of visual storytelling.” This encounter of analog media and old-school cel animation with the 21st-century world of VR leaves a lasting impression on the viewer and tells the story effectively.
This film, initially released only to be viewed on the Oculus headset, is best appreciated with even an inexpensive Cardboard VR viewer. On the Oculus, for example, the experience would be enhanced by ambisonic audio, which fixes sounds in space so that audio has directionality. However, I was still quite moved by the film despite only having the limited VR capabilities provided by the YouTube app on my phone.
Instinctively, there is something significant about a space resembling our world. The sensory experience of storytelling is no longer purely visual or aural; it becomes spatial, prompting the mind to process the narrative as it would interpret a new location, and the memory to record the story as a space one has been in. Encountering this story in this way stirred a greater empathy in me than written articles on the Uighur detention have in the past.
Speaking about the role of VR in journalism, Wolson added: “VR can be a really powerful tool for certain types of stories where … access to these places is really hard, either because it happens in the past or because people can’t go to war zones, you know, but you can bring them (there) in VR to have a better understanding of what people are going through in those spaces.”
Perhaps VR storytelling will be the way to make far-off injustices feel more real, in order to prompt reparative action.
“Reeducated” tells the Uighur story in a novel way, making an inconceivable experience accessible for new audiences. The implications of technological innovations like VR for storytelling are monumental. Though a 360-degree camera will never convey space in the same way a reporter’s descriptive language can, the two can supplement one another to record more of a story and capture more of an experience.
In Wolson’s words, “to describe … what these spaces look like, what their lives felt like, what it feels like to also go on the emotional journey of what these guys went through … is something that is really unique to what can be done with VR documentary work.”