“I Survived” Virtual Reality Project in Colombia: Project Overview

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We first approached the vast topic of the Colombian conflict in 2015, when a Colombian producer friend put us in touch with the Prison Fellowship (PF) of Colombia. PF had until that point been working exclusively (as its name suggests) in prisons, using a restorative justice framework to reconcile convicted criminals and their victims. The focus of restorative justice that differentiates it from traditional models of justice is its emphasis on the distinction between the deed and the wrongdoer, and the need for non-punitive solutions to criminality. The role of the victimizer (“victimiario” in spanish) is not to serve a punishment that is handed to them but instead to forge a path to reconcialiation with their victims through the admonition of guilt, acceptance of wrongdoing and positive action taken in acknowledgement of the injustice they were responsible for. It’s been incredible humbling to hear the stories of those from both sides who have overcome immense personal and emotional challenges to heal the deep wounds caused by the conflict, and it’s my sincere hope that this technology, with an emphasis on intimacy and perspective-taking, can help to share the process with the wider world and encourage others to take an interest in what peace-building really looks like at a personal level.

First iterations of the project took the audio from interviews and combined it with computer-generated likenesses of those featured, as well as the environments their stories took place in. This was not only to protect the identities of those involved, but also to serve as a way of giving audiences an entry way into historical scenes that were either long gone or had changed beyond recognition. To an extent it was also somewhat out of necessity, since when we first began this project, research and interviews were conducted in the field and the development was carried out back at our offices in Brooklyn, NY. Logistics notwithstanding, the key challenge quickly became the platform, or how audiences could access the experience. This has proved to be the real tripwire of computer-generated VR, and one that many have tried to circumvent by focusing on 360 video instead, given that massive online video platforms such as Youtube, Facebook and Vimeo were quick to integrate 360 video viewing into their platforms, in addition to the dedicated 360 sites that have bloomed (though some, like VRideo, have since sadly wilted).

Our original concept was to give users full agency inside the CG experiences, which were designed for Samsung Gear VR. Rendered in real-time in Unity, users could tap the side of their Gear VR to advance within a scene, as well as use a reticle as a cursor to pick up and examine items or cue action or pieces of media. User agency was central to the user experience of the piece, and we tried to maintain an open world with myriad pieces of media to uncover as the key non-linear narrative paradigm. This, of course, was hard given the non-fictional constraints, as we only used primary evidence and produced all environments based on photo references. Unfortunately however, we quickly hit a roadblock in the process as despite the proliferation of the technology, limiting ourselves to Samsung owners with Gear VR headsets meant relying on a select audience: one which had access (and the funds) to get the hardware. A new approach was required.

With subsequent return visits to Colombia, Dan has earned the trust of those interviewed, who have all agreed to appear on camera as guardians of their own personal territory within the conflict: one woman represents the False Positives committed by the Army in Santa Ana, Granada, who murdered civilians and then dressed the bodies in guerrilla uniforms in order to satisfy government anti-insurgent quotas; one man from Ciudad Bolivar was a former FARC fighter seduced by the romantic allure of life among the rebels and a weapon of his own, only to find the brutal reality horrifying; another in Barrancabermeja talks us through what it was like to live in neighbourhoods under paramilitary control, and the night the paracos (paramilitaries) drove a truck to the end of his street, rounding up local kids who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and shooting anyone who didn’t comply – his brother among them. With the portability of the tech, Dan has been able to shoot, edit and produce films while in the field and show those he is interviewing what their testimonies will look like – a crucial aspect of their inclusion in the process.

No one single story or video can unravel the networks of violence, ideologies, drug trafficking, political instability in their interwoven entirety. Nor was it our intention to try to tell that story. Instead, we want to use the presence felt by the immersive perspective of cinematic virtual reality to let those directly affected by the violence be the ones to share their stories. Focusing not just on the terrible tragedies that they courageously endured, but on their aftermath instead. On what happens in the days, weeks, months and years after a community is subjected to violence, and how it goes about healing itself without perpetuating generational cycles of reciprocal “justice”. It’s not just people either – we have also used photogrammetry to record certain key sites where this reconciliation and commemoration is taking place, such as the “Room of Never Again” (El Salón de Nunca Más) in Granada, and the classrooms where the restorative justice sessions are held, in order to allow audiences to visit these spaces for themselves. It is also aimed at the many of those who were displaced by the violence who still feel uncomfortable about returning to their hometowns and now will be able to do so at the traveling exhibition from July 1-12 where the room-scale HTC Vive VR piece will be available to try. Thus far we have seen a huge amount of interest in the project from a diverse range of audiences, though it is definitely our intention that the use of cutting-edge tech to tell these stories will help the subject matter appeal to a younger, less news-engaged crowd who feel that the conflict is no longer relevant – or interesting – to them.

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