During the live-streamed case study “Seven Grams: Solution Journalism and Augmented Reality,” presented on Thursday at the NewImages Festival, director Karim Ben Khelifa explained the origins of his next VR project – once again made with the help of executive producer Chloé Jarry of Lucid Realities.
As mentioned also in the short trailer, shown to the audience gathered in the room as well as the one watching online, “Seven Grams” is a global journalistic project that tells the story of smartphones through a smartphone, using AR. With each mobile containing roughly seven grams of precious minerals, like gold, one country in particular has an abundance of them: The Democratic Republic of Congo. “But for many, this has been a curse rather than a blessing,” it was said in the video materials, as they are often extracted in horrendous conditions, violating basic human rights.
“I had forgotten I had to do this in English!,” exclaimed the director during his presentation, sporting a Jacques Cousteau-approved red hat.
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Once again using his experience as a war correspondent and photojournalist, his intention was clear: this story needs to be heard. “It was born when I was doing my previous VR project, [2014’s] ‘The Enemy.’ I was in a mine in eastern Congo, taking photos with my phone. Not realizing they are digging out the very minerals that are enabling me to do it. [I want to show] why are we using these minerals, why they are indispensable and how they make the device you have in your hand so powerful,” he said.
Noting that “telling a story in augmented reality has a lot of challenges,” Ben Khelifa said that early audiences who tried the prototype of the app (for IOS and Android) were “fascinated by finally discovering the inside of their phone.” Focusing on four components of the phone – the motherboard, the battery, the vibrator and the screen – he added: “Each of them is linked to one of the minerals and although all these minerals are not necessarily coming only from Congo, Congo provides a lot of them,” he explained. “There is a big chance we have Congo cobalt in this room. The problem is how it’s mined.”
Mentioning the injustice and pain that comes with the procedure, he decided to leave the AR part at one point in the story and, radically changing the technique, opt for charcoal drawing instead (“which reminds us of the minerals”), when talking about one individual in Congo, abducted when he was only 12 years old and going through immense horror. Also because, given what he went through, he didn’t want to be recognized.
“After this, Generation Z knows what’s wrong but they also want to fix it, so we will be moving to where I will explain what’s the problem. And how you fight it,” he said. “After three, five years our device starts to slow down, but there are ways to extend its life and lessen the pressure on the supply chain for these minerals from Congo. We need to recycle our electronics. Only 20% of them are recycled today.” Needless to say, there will be a website accompanying “Seven Grams” outside of the app, which will introduce all the partners of the project but also provide some fact-checking. “In the age of fake news, I thought it would be good,” he deadpanned.
This year’s edition of the NewImages Festival ran Sept. 23-27.