Arts movie review

United Nations’ first VR film pushes the bounds of empathy

Virtual reality film takes viewers inside a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan

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Clouds Over Sidra screens at the Third International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria in Kuwait in March.

Clouds Over Sidra

Directed by Gabo Arora and Barry Pousman

Virtual reality has always been framed as the next big thing in gaming, but if the United Nations has anything to do with it, it will be the next big thing in humanitarian aid.

When I think about virtual reality (VR), I think about 1995 and the Nintendo Virtual Boy my family used to own. A clunky red device with an attached controller, it sat in our living room in between sessions of the space-themed shoot ‘em up game “Red Alarm,” one of only 22 titles released for the console. That, for me, was the beginning of VR.

While it’s taken two decades for the technology to brush the fringes of mainstream acceptance, the latest kid on the block, Oculus VR, has tech enthusiasts everywhere hopeful that now is VR’s time. Oculus raised $2.4 million on crowdfunding site Kickstarter back in 2012 and was sold to Facebook for $2 billion in 2014.

Today, it is Oculus that’s powering the United Nations efforts to use a series of virtual reality films to tell the stories of those often left unempowered.

This week, I had the honor of watching the UN’s first VR movie, Clouds Over Sidra on the latest Oculus-powered headset, Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition for Note 4. As I slipped the headset on, a nostalgia for “Red Alarm” rushed over me. Except, this time, I used the headset’s touchpad to navigate to the movie, not the bulky controller that came with Virtual Boy, and I was immediately transported, not into an unrealistic bi-color space landscape, but to the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, where 12-year-old Syrian refugee Sidra sat, noble but heavy-in-heart, telling me her story.

Sidra showed me around her family’s tent and took me inside her classroom and to the soccer field. She invited me to dinner with her family and spoke of her mother’s limited supply of the spices she once cooked with. And though Sidra couldn’t enter some areas of the camp that were only for males due to cultural gender norms, the camera took me to the gym and computer room, where boys and men spent their time. Sidra told me what she knew of these places, her voice louder and clearer than perhaps it had ever been — I heard the limitations of her new home, and I also heard the positivity she brought to her situation. While she couldn’t use the computers, she was able to play soccer, something she wasn’t permitted to do as a girl back home in Syria.

In one way, Clouds Over Sidra is simply a story of a girl, a girl who’s family is suffering the consequences of a civil war that has devastated its country and transformed nearly 4 million Syrians into refugees. Sidra is one of 84,000 refugees at the Za’atari refugee camp.

In another way, though, this movie is a breakthrough in humanity. Unlike other forms of videography, the Oculus experience enables a viewer to become part of her setting and empathize more deeply with the characters she encounters. As Sidra spoke, I not only saw how moved she was in sharing her story, noting when she heroically tried to hide her tears or smiled at a happy thought, but I also looked around her family’s makeshift tent, imagining what it was like to live there. I recall feeling amazed that I could experience what it was like to gaze up at her tent’s ceiling — what moviemaker of the past would include 20 seconds of ceiling shots? This new mode of storytelling lets viewers choose the moments they take in and dive deeper into experiences that move them. Every second is a fully immersive, choose-your-own-adventure exploration.

When Sidra took me outside, I turned in a circle, seeing the landscape of tents and dirt, searching for where they ended. Perhaps if I turned right or left, I’d find a void, a space not occupied by tents, a marker of hope. But no, the tents went on forever. Eighty-four thousand people. “And this is just one camp,” I thought.

Sidra told me about the clouds. I looked at the sky. This was the void I had been seeking just moments before. While the reality of the camp was heavy and heart-wrenching, the sky held hope. “My teacher says that the clouds moving over us also came here from Syria,” Sydra told me. “Someday the clouds and me are going to turn around and go back home.” It was then that I realized that I had connected with this girl from across the world. In just seven minutes in virtual reality, I had felt just a small piece of what it meant to live her life. I had felt the desolation of looking out over the camp and not knowing what would become of its inhabitants. By mere chance, though, Sidra’s life had been engulfed by war and mine by an obsession with how technology can save the world.

This film was screened to 120 global leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January. It has also screened at Sundance and SXSW, among other venues. In a recent interview with Vice, director Gabo Arora says that he hopes that virtual reality filmmaking will help world leaders gain perspective on the realities faced by vulnerable groups.

“I want to influence decision makers, first and foremost,” Arora said. “We live in a world of decision makers, unfortunately, who control the lives and destinies of other people. I don’t think all of them truly know what [Sidra’s life] is like and, in giving them this experience, I’m hopeful they will be moved to weigh greater the consequences of their decisions.”

Clouds Over Sidra is but the first film in a series of United Nations VR experiences that transport viewers to places they could not otherwise go. Upcoming films are set to take place in an Ebola clinic in Liberia and the polluted but sacred bathing grounds of the Ganges River in India.

While I watched the film on the Oculus Milk VR app, Clouds Over Sidra is also available on VRSE, an app on iOS and Android, which can be paired with Google Cardboard, a low-cost cardboard VR headset. Give it a shot. And maybe, like me, you’ll think about the vast good that could be brought to this world when you think about VR’s potential, instead of merely settling on its current fame in gaming. As students of technology at MIT, it is up to us to choose what missions we take on in life, but it is projects like this one at the UN, and many others I’ve seen on our very campus, that inspire me to continually push the bounds on the positive impact technology can have on our world. May Sidra’s story inspire you, too.