'It really hacks your senses': Virtual reality film transports Torontonians to Syrian refugee camp
'I have never seen a film move me in the same way that this film moved me'
What's it like to live life inside one of the world's largest refugee camps?
For most Torontonians, it's almost impossible to fathom, but the United Nations hopes that screenings of a new virtual reality film around the city will help bring that experience closer to home.
The film, entitled Clouds of Sidra, tells the story of life inside the sprawling Za'atari camp in the Jordanian desert through the eyes of a 12-year-old Syrian girl. And starting next week with the help of the Toronto-based non-profit organization Artscape, it will be shown across the city, including at two of its busiest travel hubs: Union Station and Pearson International Airport. A complete listing of screenings can be found here.
"It really hacks your senses," the United Nations' creative director Gabo Arora said. "You're like, 'Oh, I've been totally transported somewhere else, I feel a connection with people that I wouldn't feel.'"
Here's how it works:
Viewers strap on a virtual-reality headset and immediately enter the Za'atari camp, where life unfolds in an eight-minute video, all through the perspective of the girl named Sidra.
With the headset on and sitting in a swivel chair, you can spin around and see Sidra's world in 360 degrees: going to school in a crowd of kids; her baby brother crying in their small home; playing soccer with her friends.
From seeing to helping
The film is just one of four available on a virtual reality app launched Thursday. One follows a mother in Gaza struggling to cope after her children are killed in a shelling attack. A third follows a woman fleeing from Burundi to Congo to start a new life. Another captures the efforts of a young Liberian woman to help children orphaned by the Ebola virus.
Artscape's organizers say they hope seeing the film will not only get Torontonians thinking and talking about Syrian refugees, but inspire them to take action as well.
Viewers are encouraged to make a pledge to help in a range of ways: launching refugee employment initiatives in their workplaces, volunteering with the settlement organization COSTI, sponsoring a refugee through Lifeline Syria or donating goods or money to a variety of organizations.
Nadeen El-Kassem is a former middle-school teacher who leads a collaboration with the United Nations called The Sidra Project. It's an initiative that will take the film to local Toronto schools, as part of a collaboration with Hot Docs.
Virtual solution to 'de-sensitization'
"I used to work in film festivals," El Kassem said. "I have never seen a film move me in the same way that this film moved me."
Using virtual reality as part of the project is something University of Toronto media sociologist Kenzie Burchell says can prompt a deeper understanding of the daily plight of refugees, something difficult to grasp in the daily news cycle.
"We're witnessing crises and suffering but at this great distance. Virtual reality acts as a solution to the de-sensitization that we as audience members often feel," Burchell said.
Clouds of Sidra never mentions what ultimately happens to its main character. Two years after the film was shot, Sidra still lives in Za'atari with her family.
That fact, El Kassem says, is heartbreaking and at the same time a reminder of a reality many people are living.
"On the one hand, I say: 'Why's she still there? Why can't we do anything to get her out of there?' [But] honestly, it's a matter of global change, it's not a matter of helping just one little girl. And that's what we're trying to emphasize."