Despite extensive news reporting about China’s secretive “re-education” camps in the Xinjiang region, it is difficult to imagine what it’s like for more than a million Uyghur, Kazakh and other minorities detained inside. A new film aims to put you in their shoes — almost literally — with the help of virtual reality technology.
“Reeducated,” a short VR doc presented by the New Yorker at SXSW, patches together the testimonies of three former Kazakh detainees into an animated approximation of their experiences. With the help of a headset like the Oculus, viewers can step into the cells, classrooms and yards of a camp, rendered in atmospheric, monochrome pen-and-ink drawings.
“It’s totally chilling to be in this space — to know this is the room, these are the things that are inside of it, and the sounds you’d be hearing are actually surrounding you,” said reporter Ben Mauk, co-developer of the project. “It’s a subject where you want people to come into this space that they’re not going to have access to otherwise, since you can’t get reliable photos or videos of these camps.”
Beijing has barred access to its estimated 380 detention camps, leaving the outside world to try to understand what happens there from satellite images, local government records and reports, leaked videos and images, and the oral testimonies from survivors brave enough to speak out. The rare information that emerges from the camps is often difficult to verify, and the Chinese government denies that the camps are harming the local population.
Mauk saw an unusual opportunity when he encountered three different men — Erbaqyt Otarbai, Orynbek Koksebek and Amanzhan Seituly — who had all been held in the same Tacheng prefecture facility at the same time in 2017, and could thus corroborate each other’s stories. The hope was to bring their experiences to life in a way that conventional reporting could not.
Mauk, director Sam Wolson and artist Matt Huynh travelled together to Kazakhstan to interview the three men to try to pin down as many exact visual details as possible. Nearly a year’s worth of exchanges in words and sketches helped confirm everything from the brand of TV and the positioning of security cameras in the cells to the shape of the stools they sat on. Other data like satellite images helped inform other features, like the dimensions of the outdoor yard.
Huynh hand drew images to create dioramic stage sets, while sound designer Jon Bernson took field recordings of different sounds and pinned them to points in space within the VR world to add to the space’s sensorial verisimilitude.
“We went through many drafts of these environments. It was hard to convey why we needed to be so journalistically accurate about, like, were you handcuffed to another person, or just to yourself, and was it in front of your body or behind?” recalls Mauk. “Maybe we went a little overboard, but I think the fact that we were really paying attention to the details and checked every little thing so we can say ‘this is definitely what it was like’ does come through in the film and the confidence of these spaces.”
The project — financed by the Pulitzer Center, the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism and the Online News Association — is a companion to the New Yorker’s article and online interactive feature “Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State.” SXSW awarded it special jury recognition for immersive journalism after its premiere last Tuesday.
Screening in SXSW’s virtual cinema category, the “Reeducated” team hoped to reach a new audience that might not be aware of the ongoing human rights crisis in Xinjiang. “What about people who don’t watch the news or read the New York Times? How can we raise their awareness that this thing exists in the world?” Mauk said.
Although SXSW also hosts exchanges with China, such as an annual showcase of new Chinese bands that started in 2018, Mauk said the festival expressed no qualms about screening a film on a topic considered extremely politically sensitive by Beijing.
As the new technology goes mainstream, filmmakers are now starting to “think more strategically about how VR can assist certain kinds of investigations and narratives,” Mauk assessed.
Despite the challenges and expense of working in the medium, he feels that some stories really benefit from virtual reality.
“For bringing viewers into an otherwise inaccessible space, VR can have a visceral impact like nothing I’ve experienced,” he said. “It really does create an empathetic response in an immediate way that’s very hard to get in any other format, because you really do feel like you’re there and these people are standing right in front of you. That has a lot of potential.”
A 2D version of the VR short can be viewed below. The more extensive VR version can be found here.