In Montreal, journalism meets art meets real life

By the time Nantali Indongo found herself face to face with Jorge, a heavily tattooed MS13 gang member and fighter in El Salvador, she'd forgotten she was wearing goggles and a backpack in the Phi Centre, experiencing the latest VR installation: The Enemy. She describes its power.

War photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa brings attention to combatants and their suffering in a whole new way

Photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa explores the human side of war through the stories of six combatants, including Patient, a Congolese soldier. (Camera lucida productions)

By the time I was standing face to face with Jorge, a heavily tattooed MS13 gang member and fighter in the Maras area of El Salvador, I had kind of forgotten that I was wearing goggles and a backpack in the Phi Centre, experiencing the latest VR installation: The Enemy.

I approached Jorge, a.k.a. Koki, to see the details of the tattoos all over his bald head, face and body. He moved away from me and gave me a glance.

I stepped back. I felt bad for making the man feel exoticized. I also felt a little scared.

That's how real it gets in this 50-minute experience, created by Belgian/Tunisian photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa.
Karim Ben Khelifa is a photojournalist, and the writer and director of the virtual reality production, The Enemy. (Nantali Indongo/CBC)

You listen to six fighters share their real-life stories about being on either side of three conflicts in different parts of the world: Israel and the Palestinian territories, Eastern Congo, and El Salvador.

They've been interviewed by Ben Khelifa, whose questions you hear.

Their answers are honest, tempered, sometimes in keeping with the propaganda of their respective groups. Other answers strike me as a little more real, as they recount their individual wants and fears.

You move through these empty rooms where the fighters are waiting to meet you face to face, brought to virtual life, thanks to the expertise of the project's co-producers, the National Film Board of Canada, the Montreal digital creative studio Dpt., France Televisions, Camera lucida and Emissive.

Karim Ben Khelifa interviewed Patient, a Congelese soldier, and participants in his virtual reality experience, The Enemy, can interact with him, too. (Camera lucida productions)

The physical details have a powerful impact.

I couldn't stop looking at the hands of Patient, the soldier from the Congolese army.  

I had a hard time staring into the eyes of his enemy, Jean de Dieu, a fighter with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.  

The 33-year-old man, wearing a T-shirt, rain boots, a tiny tuque and a knapsack, looked 15 years younger. His large eyes are yellowed — perhaps from witnessing the kind of violence in which he's been participating since he was a child.

An orphaned Rwandan in a Congolese refugee camp, he was forced to join a conflict that has been going on for at least 20 years.

So the stories are powerful as well.

You walk out, possibly a little dizzy, if you're not yet familiar with virtual and artificial reality experiences.

And you walk out with a least one more question than when you went in — about humanity, about your stereotypes of "the other," or about how we all rationalize the world's need for violence, and how that rationalization is driven by a constant yearning for peace.
Karim Ben Khelifa spent 15 years working as a war photographer and journalist, then conceived of a virtual reality production as a powerful way of bringing the each participant's attention to conflicts and the suffering they cause. (Karim Ben Khelifa/Camera lucida productions)

Khelifa's goal is to reach another audience with this work — the next generation of fighters.

"The people who are going to be given the choice to take a weapon because they are at war technically, in Israel, in Congo, in Palestine, in Salvador," he explained to me after I went through his "journalism meets art meets real life" experience.

"It's not always a matter of choice, but at least if you can have what I call a 'journalistic intervention,' that makes them live an experience in which they realize there is humanity on the other side: that's my intervention."

Afterwards, he said, they are left with a choice: "To take a weapon — or not."

The Enemy is on now until March 10 at the Phi Centre in Old Montreal. It's sold out, however, you can download the augmented reality app of The Enemy, developed by the Montreal digital creative studio Dpt and the NFB, available on iOS and Android, to recreate the experience on your smartphone.


Nantali Indongo is CBC's Arts & Culture contributor and host of The Bridge. Follow her on Twitter @taliindongo.