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Homestay: Documentary explores world of international students through VR

Filmmaker Paisley Smith uses virtual reality to tell the story Taro, a 17-year-old international student who took his own life while he was living with her family.

Paisley Smith uses VR to tell story of Taro, 17, who took his own life while he was living with her family

Paisley Smith says she hopes to spark conversations around the experience of international students within families in Canada. (John Sandeman/ CBC News)

For Paisley Smith, losing Taro Horikoshi was like losing a family member. 

The 17-year-old international student from Japan lived with her family for three years, until he took his own life. Smith says it's a loss that her family grappled with for years and it's what she hopes to communicate to her audiences through virtual reality in her documentary Homestay.

"Part of what happened when Taro passed away is I felt no one knew his story. I just felt like I needed to tell his story to make sure people knew this person was in Canada and had this rich life," Smith told CBC's Our Toronto. 

More than half a million international students study in Canada and Smith says it can be tough and isolating. She hopes to spark conversations around the students' experiences living with Canadian families. 

Homestay is a documentary that uses a combination of touch, movement and audio to create an immersive experience. (Homestay )

"The more I share this project the more I learn that this has happened with other people and they're affected by it," Smith says.

The documentary uses a combination of touch, movement and audio to create an immersive experience. 

Homestay's virtual world is set in a paper craft version of Vancouver's Nitobe Memorial Garden, a location that is five minutes away from the home Smith lived in with Taro. 

"As you move through this project, at first you have full control over the leaves and the garden. You can actually interact with the boat and you can touch things, but as you move through the process you lose control," she says.

"A leaf will float in front you and you can't touch it.That frustration and that feeling you have is reflecting the process of trying to understand suicide."

The VR documentary is set in a paper craft version of Vancouver's Nitobe Memorial Garden. (Homestay)

"There's no instructions. You have to figure out what to do and take a risk and that's in some way reflecting the international student experience," she says. 

"If this could happen in my family, it could happen anywhere. We have a really important obligation to take care of young kids who are travelling to our country." 

Homestay runs during the Reel Asian International Film Festival until Nov. 10. The festival showcases contemporary Asian cinema and work by Asian artists in different venues throughout the city until November 16. 

Watch Our Toronto Saturday and Sunday at noon, or Monday at 11 a.m. on CBC Television

With files from Marivel Taruc