Photo from 'Born into Exile' by Charlotte Mikkelborg

'I Wanted To Show Them How it Felt': The Women Using VR as Empathy Activism

From the experience of an Indigenous elder to the plight of pregnant refugees, meet the female filmmakers revolutionizing how we see the world.

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Nov 3 2016, 12:15am

Photo from 'Born into Exile' by Charlotte Mikkelborg

One minute you're holding a mini elephant in your hand; the next, you're floating about in deep space or hang gliding across the Alps. No longer the provenance of a technological elite, virtual reality (VR) has truly arrived. It promises to become the next mass medium in a way that pundits say mirrors the arrival of film at the start of the 20th century.

But what if VR dared to do more, like increase empathy and change people's minds—even people in positions of power? A school of female VR filmmakers are honing in on this possibility, combining the impact of the medium with that most traditional of human endeavors: storytelling.


Australian artist and filmmaker Lynette Wallworth is one of those women. Her short VR film Collisions is set in the Pilbara Desert in Western Australia, and tells the true story of an Indigenous elder, Nyarri Morgan, who experienced first hand the nuclear tests held in the 1950s and 60s in the Australian outback.

People remember this film as something that happened directly to them.

These series of tests were Nyarri's first interaction with the non-Indigenous world. Lynette's piece transports the viewer to a sunburnt landscape, where Nyarri is waiting to welcome you and take you on a guided tour of the land. "Nyarri had no context for the atomic tests, so we see the tests how he saw [them]; as the spirits of the land rising up," she explains.

Lynette says her audiences quickly forget they're not actually there. "When the ash starts to fall, people move away. They sometimes even try and brush it off their face. It's amazing to see world and economic leaders who come to see the work actively responding when they are in it. When Nyarri introduces himself, I often hear them speaking back to him."

Photo of Nyarri Morgan by Pier Mussared

Lynette developed Collisions to create a deeper understanding around the Australian Indigenous experience, as well as the dangers of both climate change and nuclear testing. We often hear stock phrases about Indigenous people, she says, "like 'They have a particular connection to country and place,' but it's really hard to know what that actually means".

The film is her way of bringing meaning to this phrase; demonstrating Nyarri's relationship to his country in even the smallest of gestures, like the way he holds himself. You witness Nyarri's deep connection and responsibility to the land as though you are literally there with him.

Read more: Planned Parenthood's New VR Video Simulates Clinic Harassment

Lynette says the power of VR is that viewers feel totally present, and that stays with them. "People remember this film as something that has happened directly to them, rather than something that they saw. They say you recall VR experiences as a dream. The power of this experience resting in your unconscious is pervasive."

She was recently asked to show the experience to foreign ministers at The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in Vienna, in the hope it might persuade leaders from other countries, like the US and China, to ratify the treaty. She has also been asked to show the film at a number of UN events to educate and open a window on different perspectives when it comes to nuclear testing and nuclear security.

At the Raindance Film Festival in London, I meet filmmaker Jane Gauntlett and experience her 13-minute 360 film, In My Shoes: Dancing With Myself, which immerses the viewer into the unsettling, mesmerizing experience of having a seizure.

After virtually blacking out numerous times, Jane appears (virtually) in front of me and in reassuring tones tells me she sometimes experiences these fits numerous times a week. She then issues step-by-step instructions for helping someone if they are having a seizure in real life.

It's not unusual to see tears rolling down people's cheeks as they take off the headset.

In 2007, Jane was riding her bike when two young men on mopeds tried to snatch her handbag; they didn't see it was actually chained to her bike. She fell, hit her head, and was in a coma for three weeks. Her family was told she'd never walk or talk again. Beating those odds was one thing, but she still suffers from regular seizures because of her brain injury.

"I had people telling me it was too dangerous for me to leave the house, or that I looked like The Exorcist when I had a seizure, and other awful things," she says. "So the initial concept was born because I wanted to communicate with family, friends and the medical team who were assisting me. I wanted to show them what it felt like to walk in my shoes."

A still from 'Dancing with Myself' by Jane Gauntlett

Jane has a background in theatre and initially began to experiment by telling different aspects of her story with more basic sound and video pieces. Like Lynette, she was drawn to VR and 360 because "the story comes from the first person; it's actually happening to the audience, rather than the third person".

It's not unusual to see tears rolling down people's cheeks as they take off the headset, Jane says. She has had doctors in tears telling her it's changed their attitude to patients, and mothers of children with serious injuries saying they feel as if they can hear their kids' version of events for the first time.

One male viewer with epilepsy, who found it difficult to talk to anyone about his seizures, brought "his whole family" to see Jane's work. "It was the first time he felt he could properly explain his epilepsy, even to his wife."

Although the filmmaker has witnessed these huge emotional outpourings, she cautions against seeing VR as an empathy machine. For Jane, whose plans for future VR works include the experience of having OCD, storytelling is the real driver. VR is just the vehicle.

"The phrase 'poverty porn' is mentioned a lot at conferences and events. I see a lot of pieces that play on the shock value. Those works paint people as victims. They are represented in a two-dimensional sense. In My Shoes tries to dig deeper than that."

VR is not the sole domain of film festivals. Some UN agencies have rushed to adopt the technology, with a view to raising awareness and empathy levels for their campaigns. UNICEF's typical strategy of approaching people on the street only attracts funding from about one in 12 passersby, but that figure doubles if VR is part of their pitch.

Ex-BBC foreign correspondent and VR documentarian Charlotte Mikkelborg was commissioned by the United Nations Population Fund to create Born Into Exile, a 360 documentary that follows two pregnant Syrian women living in a refugee camp.

A still from 'Born Into Exile' by Charlotte Mikkelborg

"I'm a cynical journalist," says Charlotte, "but I feel the empathy [induced by VR] is working amazingly right now. People are feeling it because they are so wowed by the experience. But the technology has to keep moving forward in order to keep the empathy at that level."

Born Into Exile provides the ability to look around a refugee camp and witness, or experience, the poverty surrounding the women at this vulnerable time in their lives. The film made me question what we are doing for these women, and how we could do more, but I had Charlotte's words ringing in my ears: If these intense VR narrative experiences become the norm, will that empathy drop off? Might we suffer compassion fatigue?

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Regardless of what may come, Charlotte's piece has had a tangible impact. After showing her film at Congress in the US, an undisclosed amount of financial support was instantly pledged in support of the plight of Syrian refugees.

"The thing that's so exciting about VR is the endless possibilities" she says. "If we keep making these technological advancements and using our storytelling skills, the opportunities for the future are limitless."

Collisions is showing at ACMI in Melbourne until the 15th January. You can also catch it at the Art Gallery of South Australia.