The UN’s First Virtual Reality Documentary Puts You Inside a Syrian Refugee Camp

Gabo Arora and Barry Pousman's Clouds Over Sidra puts you inside a Syrian refugee camp in virtual reality. Images courtesy the artists

The conflict in Syria has transformed nearly 4 million men, women and children into refugees. As the civil war continues, individuals and families flee the country in droves. Many find a purgatorial safety within the refugee camps of Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.

If you don’t live in the Middle East, the Syrian refugee crisis may seem simultaneously lamentable and abstract. Clouds Over Sidra, which is the UN’s first foray into virtual reality filmmaking, makes the issue tangible by dropping users into the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. Your guide is Sidra, a twelve-year-old Syrian girl who is just coming to terms with the limitations and promise of her new home.

Clouds Over Sidra was created as part of Chris Milk’s first volley of experiences designed for mobile VR (Vice’s Millions March is another). The project was built on collaboration: Milk co-created the project with UN Senior Advisor Gabo Arora, who shared on-the-ground directing and producing duties with Barry Pousman. In the wake of Clouds Over Sidra’s twin premieres at The World Economic Forum and Sundance, I connected with Arora online to discuss the experience and its potential impact.

The Creators Project: Tell me about the origins of this project. How did it come together?

Gabo Arora: Well, at the UN, we’re trying to get hip with the times. We understand that there are new power dynamics at play, and that our old traditional model of relying on celebrities and the New York Times to get our message out there is becoming dated. We need to work with new influencers, new technologies, and in new ways to hit our target base of people.

So VR was something you'd been looking at for a while, or was there some serendipity to the choice to go with the medium?

We had experimented with making viral videos—I had made one for climate change called Keep the Oil in the Ground—and we wanted more.  So I was on that track when I met the Edge. I work with Bono and his One campaign, and they had invited me to a party for their new album. Bono was in the hospital, and they mentioned how it was a bummer because they had a VR project in the works that Chris Milk was going to do, and now they couldn't go forward with it. 

And you're like, "Bono's in the hospital, it's my time to shine?"

(Laughs) Well, I knew they were ready for a project, so I pitched the Edge, and the Edge loved it, and told Chris to meet me. And Chris said he was always looking to work to make a project on social good—to take advantage of the empathy engine VR is. So we started talking. 

If Bono didn't get hurt, this probably would not have been made, which is kind of weird. But I'm sure he would be proud that something good came of his fall. I just wanted to make movies on our issues, having already made some semi-successful ones. And then Chris gave me a VR demo at Bond Street later on, and I knew it was huge, that it was the future.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus experiencing “Clouds Over Sidra” at Davos. Photo: Socrates Kakoulides

I want to hear about what it was like to actually shoot.

It's like shooting blind. There is a purity to the process: I have to leave the camera and then run out of they way and hide, and I can't see what I shot. I have no idea how it’s going. I direct people to do and act a certain way, but after a while I think they forget about the camera. It's not very invasive. And I would also get distracted and shots would go on long. 

Of all the scenes, I staged one. The one with the kids running at you and encircling you in slow motion? I herded about 200 kids. I was like the pied piper. We did that and made a game of running and playing for four hours. 

That actually brings me to a question about the intention behind the piece. On one hand, it's obvious that social impact is the goal here, but it feels transporting in a way that cinema used to be transporting.

The goal is to make you feel like you are there, and to empathize with what it is like to live there in an ordinary way.  A day in the life of a 12 year old girl in a refugee camp. But yes, it is art. Or artistic. 

How did you manage the collaboration with Chris Milk?

I was director and he was EP. So he and his team would mostly follow my direction, but then he would say “Well how about this or that.” And we would agree sometimes, sometimes not. But he is a genius of the highest order. He really has no ego. I could tell that we would discuss things and there would be a third spirit on the line. And we would test out ideas and I knew, a second after I said them, what his reaction would be because he helped set the tone and the standard. The rhythm. And he made me work within that vision. It was like Brian Eno and U2. A great producer has this way of taking your raw material and giving it that polish and making you think about it in new ways. 

What do you want to see come as a consequence of this work?

I want to influence decision makers, first and foremost. 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. 

I hope it doesn't come across as too grandiose, but I'm moved by how this moves ordinary people. I've showed it to taxi drivers, janitors, executives...and something is happening here. What I find fascinating is the power dynamic between Sidra and her audience. Usually she would have to compete for your attention. And now, because she associated with a new tech and something cool, people are running after her! I love this. She and her story are desirable. 

Clouds Over Sidra screens at Davos. Photo: Socrates Kakoulides

Kel O’Neill and his collaborator Eline Jongsma were recently named as finalists for the Tim Hetherington Visionary Award. Find their work at www.jongsmaoneill.com.

Related:

Oculus Trauma: Inside Oscar Raby's 'Assent'

Is Virtual Reality The Future Of Journalism?

"Points Of View" Interactive Web Documentary Captures Everyday Life In Gaza