The Current

Virtual reality powerfully amplifies Indigenous stories, says filmmaker

The cornerstone of The Current's public forum in Prince George was the release of CBC's first virtual reality documentary that tells the story of Ramona Wilson's disappearance along the Highway of Tears. The Current speaks to the director of the project.
'As a viewer when you're experiencing virtual reality, you're implicated' says Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson who directed The Current's VR documentary, Highway of Tears. (Michael Labre)

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Ramona Wilson was 16 when she went missing in 1994. The Gitxsan teenager's body was found nearly a year later, and her killer has never been found.  

The cornerstone of The Current's public forum in Prince George, B.C., was the release of CBC's first virtual reality documentary, Highway of Tears.

It tells the story of Ramona Wilson's disappearance along the Highway of Tears, as told by her mother Matilda. 

Telling Ramona's story in virtual reality, or VR, created an opportunity for viewers to connect with Matilda's story in a way that they wouldn't in a two-dimensional film, said Anishinaabe filmmaker Lisa Jackson, who directed the project. 

"There's a term used a lot with VR which is 'presence.' And I think as a viewer when you're experiencing VR; you're implicated. You're in the space with the person," Jackson tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

Matilda Wilson holds up a picture of her youngest child, Ramona, who disappeared in 1994, in the VR documentary, Highway of Tears. (CBC)

At only four minutes, the film is short, but according to Jackson packs an emotional punch despite its brevity.

"In some respect, it's simplified storytelling," says Jackson because the nature of VR means there is less editing involved. "But the power of what you do show is amplified." 

Producing a film in VR means the filmmakers have to think about the project in a different way from the beginning.  And traditional editing and storytelling techniques go out the window.  The VR medium is young, so the rules are still being re-written. 

Jackson says part of the emotional impact of the film comes from being "inside" the story — sitting across from Matilda Wilson in her living room as she holds a picture of her daughter, or standing on the side of the Highway of Tears at night as the cars hurtle past through the darkness.

"It is isolated," Jackson tells Tremonti.

"And we wanted to convey the experience of what it would have to be like if you were hitchhiking down that highway."

Listen to the full interview at the top of this web post. 

This segment was produced by The Current's Josh Bloch.

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