Of VR and Vérité: Reality Under Construction

 Jun 3, 2016   Commentary and Criticism, Digital Essays   No Comments

Commentary by Bryan Bello

Does documentary’s drive for deeper immersion come at the expense of inclusion?


(UN/Vrse.works/screenshot) “Clouds Over Sidra” allows viewers to see a Syrian refugee camp in 360 degrees, but does that translate to knowledge of the ground the refugees sit on as its director Chris Milk claims? Harvard’s Sam Gregory argues VR exposition of refugee camps may serve as poverty tourism if no outlet for action is offered, “it confuses immersion with empathy.” (1)


The last year or so, I’ve struggled as a filmmaker to engage with the latest advancements in my field. I’m an old soul. I may be 29, but am more Vérité than Virtual Reality. It’s not a hipster’s nostalgia at the root of my traditionalism, it’s an ideal: inclusion – a belief that more self in story and more selves in storytelling improves art and culture synchronously.

Ideals are often symptoms of technology. Some sixty years ago the convergence of sync sound and mobile 16 mm cameras made documentary production accessible to an expanded array of voices. The result was an era of diverse discourse that gradually transformed the medium of “Truth (no questions asked)” into the medium of imperfect and self-aware alternative narrative.

So, my allegiances don’t lie with technologies, they lie with the realities they promote. I’m a huge fan of the iPhone – an invention that has gone beyond the 16mm camera in democratizing visual narrative. In my devotion to inclusion, I’m not opposed to virtual reality documentary, I’m opposed to what VR (in its current iteration) promotes: Immersion, capital “I” – immersion at the expense of inclusion and not in its service. Prioritizing the view over the voice.

It’s not an unfounded fear. We’ve been here before. Breakthroughs in narrative technology tend to shift our attention away from who’s telling the story towards how the story is being told. I’d argue, that in documentary, only when such technologies stimulate its consumers and producers to consider both, that the resultant storytelling can be considered advancement.

Belief By Default

Through the optics of twentieth century experiments in immersion the implications of a new generation’s efforts begin to take shape. The 16mm moment I hold in such high esteem provides one useful case study. Its own immersive opportunities (fly-on-the-wall), advanced by the technology’s earliest form of expression (cinéma vérité – including direct cinema), defined the breakthrough early on. A nearly invisible production crew coupled with advanced subject intimacy focused viewer attention on how close we could get to life. Could we get closer? Whose perspective mediated the experience was an afterthought.

(Robert Drew and Associates): Robert Drew’s Primary is one of the cinéma vérité movement’s earliest works, delivering unprecedented access to American presidential candidates on the campaign trail. Drew dubbed his brand of vérité, “direct cinema,” which he described as “reporting without summary or opinion,” declaring all previous forms of documentary “fake” at a 1963 film summit in Lyon, France.


Failing to consider whose perspective is and isn’t included in any narrative puts the viewer at risk of taking the author’s version definitively. As Fred Turner writes in The American Prospect:

Media that offer no respite between images and no access to the world beyond the images, however temporarily, may encourage audiences to submit themselves to an overwhelming experience. And such submission in and of itself is rarely good for democracy.

Turner draws on a different 20th century phenomenon in his evaluation of immersion’s political implications, examining the mechanics of VR in relation to the government takeovers of mass media during WWII. For the hermetically sealed experiencer in both environments there is no immediate relief from the images and the grammar of an agenda (in VR documentary the agenda is often an enforced empathy – discussed further below). As such, the individual is vulnerable to forming ideas through “submission” rather than choice. The principle of mediating sensory experiences through a “closed semiotic environment” says Turner, disadvantages willful contextualization in the act of opinion formation. He points to the discomfiting use of VR by major commercial entities to viscerally connect consumers to their products.

Chris Dixon, a sage of Internet venture capitalism and an early investor in Oculus, says viewer vulnerability in today’s immersive constructs stems from engaging in a mediated experience where “the default state is belief” as opposed to suspended disbelief. “Once VR reaches a certain quality level your brain is actually tricked — at the lowest, most primal level — into believing that what you see in front of you is reality.” Peter Wilkins, who engineered the first movie for VR (Zero Point), says the “reptile” brain stores the interaction as a memory of a real experience.

Dixon believes that documentary storytelling in VR is ethically obliged to remain simple given the technology’s power of cognitive influence, focusing on more travelogue-like experiences. His argument focuses on the real potential for VR to traumatize viewers when they are inducted into unsettling narrative environs (imagine the Act of Killing released for VR). There’s a lot of discussion about this – a major focus in an early code of ethics published this year in the journal, Frontiers in Robotics and AI. But even amidst the most mundane surrounds, when the medium’s default state is belief the documentary viewer is inherently at risk of processing engagement with a person’s representation (most often constructed by a third party) as an unmediated/unedited interaction. That representation might be constructed on flimsy or disingenuous information that doesn’t reveal itself transparently to the viewer like the representation’s figure; a body which reaches out to you and asks you to think of only it and not how it got there. We may walk away from the experience feeling like we’ve expanded our minds through intimate consideration of “other,” having just seeded a bed of stereotypes within.

Shifting the viewing paradigm from disbelief to belief, moving closer and closer to life, arguably diminishes critical distance in the process. Cinéma vérité posed similar problems early on. The intensity of its intimacy – at the time of its emergence, experienced exclusively within the confines of a closed dark theater – commanded the attention of audiences in a pre-internet world where access to discourse diffusing the event wasn’t just a simple Google search away. Cinéma vérité, too, was poised to induce a submission in the viewer. And for a moment it does.


(Dos Equis): Dos Equis commissioned a VR experience for bar-goers to galavant with their “most interesting man in the world” character in an effort to physically link their beverages with the memory of a momentarily embodied lifestyle unattainable for most of its consumers. VR documentary must balance a tricky line between appealing to the senses and seducing them.


Reality Through Dialog

Out of the gate, cinéma vérité and its umbrella of articulations (direct cinema, parallel cinema, observational cinema) posits itself as more than a critique of truth’s established visual mediation, but “film truth” itself, self-ordained by its powers of exhibition.

In doing so, the movement misevaluates its utility jeopardizing the development of its unique artistic and educational potential.

Critique, after all, relies heavily on authorial voice for its production. Voice being unique in each person infuses that which it shapes with the distinct qualities of self. Exhibition, on the other hand, results more from the pursuit of neutrality. By prioritizing the creation of a space for the audience and not the artist to insert him or herself a reduction in nuance may result from restricting the inclusion of the author’s own unique perspective (perceived by the narrative’s facilitators as a distracting influence for the viewer). There is more art in critique than there is in exhibition.

While the degree of inclusion and “how best to include” are calculations that benefit from temperance, structurally disinvesting in the inclusion of its creators’ voices – all of whom are experts in their own experiences, but rarely in the experiences of others – also robs the conversations documentary so powerfully seeds of a certain validity. Immersion based storytelling that diffuses authorial presence can diffuse its content’s pedagogic value.

“People educate each other through the mediation of the world,” says Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. “Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other [italics mine].”

According to Freire, knowledge exists only in action. It can be produced, but not received. When we consume documentary, arriving at knowledge hinges entirely on the with each other as there is no opportunity to engage directly with or in the world itself through the medium. It’s only as a conduit for dialog that a documentary product can become active and that knowledge can result. That activation requires on the other side of the audience, through the film, the presence of the only other entity capable of being present in a films’ transmission: the author.


(NY Times/Vrse.works): The New York Times powerfully elicited the empathy of subscribers for three child survivors of war in its “Displaced” project, but also provoked concern from journalists. “Very good storytelling, but flawed reporting” wrote NPR’s Robert Siegel. “The first tip-off is the absence of a narrator (are the children really reliable narrators of their experiences?) … Why aspire to invisibility?” (2, 3, 4)


When Freire says, “Teachers and students, co-intent on reality, are both [role players] not only in the task of unveiling that reality, and thereby coming to know it critically, but in the task of re-creating that knowledge,” we might replace “teachers and students” with “authors and audiences.” How we meaningfully integrate our lived experiences with the mediated discourses that bring definition to our lives is an inquiry whose pursuit author and audience are forever co-intent upon. The reality revealed therein is perhaps the only one documentary can produce through viewing. Without the author venturing a take through the example of him or herself entering the story brought before the audience, there is little we can learn through contemplation of the narrative.

Jean-Luc Godard puts it concisely commenting on the work of Richard Leacock at the momentous 1963 summit on cinéma vérité in Lyon, France: “Deprived of consciousness, thus, Leacock’s camera, despite its honesty, loses the two fundamental qualities of a camera: intelligence and sensibility.” For Godard, an auteur, voice and camera are one and the same, instruments operable only when speaking.

Course Correction

Artistry and knowledge are more alive in works driven by critique by virtue of the author’s presence. It’s no surprise then that culture’s eventual critique of cinéma vérité would help to liberate the art from the burden of big Truth (or big Reality) and activate the fundamental application of its barrier-breaking technology: the enhanced production of personal truth through the exercise of documentary inquiry.

Cinéma vérité’s liberation gradually reflected itself in the visual language of its artists. Less interested in convincing audiences that they were “there too,” products of an increasingly singular nature came to field. Viewers of cinéma vérité by extension would inoculate themselves to submission with life-like encounters in film as the products that incubated those encounters, on the whole, communicated a personality not easily confused with objectivity, diffusing the effects of isolated exposure.

Overall, the cinéma vérité movement would go on to advance the quality and quantity of stories told through documentary film. Said otherwise, the how and who. Its products became more thought provoking in form through the visual production of intimacy (how) and in substance through the promotion of the author(s) in filmmaking (who). Today cinéma vérité endures as a leading method of visual inquiry, heralded for its artistic, pedagogic and emotional contributions to culture.

Reality Under Construction

Through a case study of cinéma vérité, cultural and creative concerns attending the introduction of new immersive technologies come to the fore. But what can a legacy method of documentary production truly teach VR about storytelling in a media landscape that barely resembles the one that shaped it?

If the success of YouTube and the embrace of amateur storytelling half a century later tells us anything, it’s that popularly we continue to value the enhanced exchange of cultural dialog and participation in it (reality under construction) over being gifted a definitive reality. That people unheard from before, speaking for themselves or adding new commentary on things outside of themselves, declaring, “I exist too and this is reality for me, as I see it” is the most powerful experience a visual medium can enable educationally and artistically – not “being-thereness.”

In summary, the appetites of documentary consumers ultimately align with core communication needs of a healthy society: diverse representation in dialogs of power, popular inclusion in the processes that produce them, low barrier access to influential conduits of self-expression.

VR luminaries would argue that fostering healthy culture through the advancement of dialog is the technology’s greatest contribution to documentary. By virtue of the connectivity unique to its immersive experience, the dialog it seeds is more influential.

There is validity to this assessment. But upon examining the technocratic means to its democratic ends, contradictions emerge, some unique to VR, but mostly reminiscent of those that stunted cinéma vérité early on.


(Socrates Kakoulides): The UN commissioned Milk’s production of “Sidra” with audiences such as this high powered group at the 2015 World Economic Forum in mind. The goal is to elicit empathy for and on behalf of refugees towards the earmarking of funds for humanitarian intervention. The content refugees might produce for themselves (VR or otherwise) through a similar UN investment could have a larger payoff.


Immersion and the “Empathy Machine”

If VR documentary had a first word, it would be “empathy.” The elite group of music video directors, journalists, college professors, award winning filmmakers and mega media organizations all shaping the craft’s grammar coo the word. This is the justification for firmly installing the technology within the documentary medium, its perceived ability to hardwire empathy. The successful production of which has long been the fulcrum that documentary’s most impact driven products rest.

“You are sitting there with her. You are sitting on the same ground that she is sitting on. And because of that, you feel her humanity in a deeper way.”

This is VR wunderkind, Chris Milk, explaining what happens when you watch his VR doc, “Clouds Over Sidra.” It’s a short story about a twelve-year-old Syrian refugee living in Lebanon. The headset you watch it on doesn’t have a plugin that makes the leather seat beneath your actual bottom feel like the dirt floor that Sidra sits on, but the field of view is 360 degrees. It can’t emulate the glaring awkwardness that accompanies being a well-accommodated poverty tourist in a humid refugee camp surrounded by heartbroken, hungry survivors, many of whom are pleading with you for help, but yes the experience is uniquely stirring and guaranteed to make an impression.

“Where analysts of the 1940s feared mass media’s ability to overpower reason, an emerging generation of scholars, journalists, and technologists are working to turn that power toward the creation of empathy,” says Turner.

It’s a kind of grafted empathy, made possible by VR’s “belief by default” utility. What we feel may be real, but the quality of those feelings is certainly different than one’s born of physical encounters. Of course this is the case with all documentary media, but legacy formats don’t require their experiences to operate as analogs for the real world in forming their connections. Precisely because we are no longer easily convinced of their realness, traditional documentary products must earn the empathy of its viewers. Its only real hope for doing so is by stimulating the conscious participation of the “disbelievers (by default)” in the storytelling. Eliciting processes like feedback and the questioning of the author in the act of digesting the narrative’s contents, traditional documentary realizes it must pass the critical evaluation of its viewers in order to achieve their empathy. There is no hardwiring a shortcut. Maybe that’s a good thing. The underlying processes driving emotional connectivity in non-VR documentary, while not always rigorous are nevertheless active and predicated on internal and external dialog just like the processes Freire say drive the production of knowledge.


(Nonny de la Peña): Nonny de la Peña’s “immersive journalism” gives viewers “first person experiences of the events or situation described in news stories.” Curiously, much of her work fabricates environments using computer graphics, such as “Hunger in L.A.” Is the information missing from the reconstruction inconsequential to the viewer’s formation of a real event’s impression? (5)


For today’s viewer of VR documentary, there’s not a whole lot motivating the critical framing of its experiences. Definitely not the rhetoric of its acolytes. The godmother of VR, Nonny de la Peña, describes her invention of immersion journalism as “the production of news in a form in which people can gain first person experiences of the events or situation described in news stories.” That’s right, “first person experiences” of actual events through media in which “the participant is afforded unprecedented access to the sights and sounds, and possibly, the feelings and emotions that accompany the news.”

Prior to even watching our first film we are primed to evaluate VR documentary on criteria of realness (as oppose to, perhaps, imagination, expressiveness or artistry) and base that evaluation on a comparison to legacy media (regular news, for instance) and not life itself. Journalists, professors and TED talkers tell us that what we witness is as good as real. Throw in the fact that our brains are purportedly storing these experiences as memories of lived real-world events and its hard to see why viewers would characterize their emotional connections through VR as approximate, despite the obvious absence of so much critical sensory information.

Reality, Again?

Who asked VR to mimic reality in the first place? Artists in gaming and dramatic fiction are stimulated by how they can depart from the real world through digital immersion and have produced mind bending content in their excursions into the unknown. While non-fiction is the controversial province of documentary, as we saw in cinéma vérité the medium’s greatest strides often come when expressionism and abstraction are paired with exposition. What might a modern day Chris Marker weaving his Sans Soleil end up producing in VR? How might Jessica Oreck extend the hypnotism of her Baba Yaga into the field of 360 degrees? Better yet, what might Sidra’s film about her own life be like?

Here in lies the curious dichotomy of VR in its crusade for empathy through the mimesis of the physical world. Empathy that’s hardwired by creating environments that make us believe “we’re there too,” giving way to narrative encounters that force a confrontation of our emotional receptiveness to targeted “others,” may actually produce a brand of empathy less productive than that which documentary currently creates in legacy constructions. At the same time, while fixating on concrete realism towards the achievement of empathy, the medium’s great artistic potential may stagnate for wont of more expressionism in rendering the complicated experiences of living in the world.

Rx for VR

VR documentary’s quest for identity resembles cinéma vérité’s in its nascency. I’d say the prescription for its healthy development is the same too: a greater emphasis on inclusion, not immersion, in the production of its works.

The shift no doubt will only lead to greater artistry in the field. Just as we’ve seen time and time again, the more accessible a technology becomes, the more expressive and creative the output. The technology seems to be headed this way. Hopefully it will arrive fast enough for the experimentation of diverse new media makers to influence the medium’s sill plastic grammar, daily growing more rigid in the exclusive hold of established professionals. One form of authorial inclusion is already being semantically eliminated from the art form: the physical appearance of the author in his or her film. Right now it is common practice for directors to hide from the camera during shooting, so as to not appear in the picture, even though they are part of the reality of what they shoot at that moment. We must fight to make sure the author is not erased altogether. A grammar of inclusion must be crowdsourced.

The same prescriptive logic applies to VR documentary’s pursuit of empathy, as well.

In narrative there is connectivity that’s mediated by a third party (an outsider introducing a subject to an audience) and there is the connectivity born of a subject’s introduction of his or herself, directly to an audience, through first person production.


Sasha (Sasha Williams): First time director Sasha Williams is provided an iPhone and storytelling training by non-profit Street Sense to construct a first person documentary about her experience of actively surviving Washington D.C.’s most notorious homeless shelter while raising a child. The compact, accessible and affordable technology enabled therapeutic self-reflection for Williams as well as the unique exploration of an environment forbidden to cameras all wrapped up in an intensely intimate visual package (6, 7)


My own experience helping men and women surviving homelessness to direct their own personal-narrative documentaries for local screening revealed that there are powerful effects unique to the latter. Audiences consistently approach our co-op filmmakers to share how they are touched in ways they hadn’t been before by their first-person narrative treatment of homelessness. In turn, the filmmakers at the end of each screening are often uniquely moved through conversation with community members that eluded them previously despite having shared a city for years. The direct two-way exchange of empathy between parties – an experience that often circumvents the subjects of homeless portraits directed by third parties – can result in stronger connections made and produce more enduring results.

VR documentary currently focuses on the connections that can be made for people, an approach that can be very effective but fundamentally downplays the potency of people speaking for themselves and directly to one another.

It’s reflected in the movement’s impact strategies, which seem united by the common thread of placing expanded representational powers in the hands of those that already wield them. By empowering the powerful, target outcomes are achieved on behalf of disempowered populations more efficiently than they might otherwise be achieved by themselves, given a similar investments in resources. At least that seems to be the idea.

While traditional documentary is often guilty of operating the same way, this century’s greatest advancements in impact are driven by the opportunities latent in making the production and distribution of content vastly accessible, personalized endeavors (iPhone cameras, YouTube etc). In relation to social action documentary, Sam Gregory and Patricia Zimmerman characterize it like this:

In Web 2.0 media, the capacity to produce and share media, testimony, and visual evidence is widely dispersed. No longer an adjunct to professional practices, amateurism now redefines, reconfigures and infiltrates virtually all forms of media. Circulation and aggregation have greater leverage than visibility. Although this new human rights media lacks the rigor of professional human rights documentation, it expands human rights advocacy into open space and amplifies potency.

We can forgive the sometimes-amateur production qualities that attend a new media maker using a GoPro (regardless if it’s one or 16 at once) to tell his or her story in exchange for the directness and authenticity of the storytelling afforded. In a Web 3.0 that incorporates mediums like VR documentary into its infrastructures of exchange, what will matter most to consumers of the content is voice, perspective and nuance as it always has. Luckily, these elements are strong allies of empathy too.

Bryan Bello is co-founder of the Homeless Filmmakers Cooperative at Street Sense and a Washington, D.C. filmmaker specializing in participatory documentary.


Caption Footnotes

1. http://www.wired.com/brandlab/2015/11/is-virtual- reality-the- ultimate-empathy- machine/

2. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/08/magazine/the-displaced- introduction.html?_r=0

3. http://www.npr.org/sections/thisisnpr/2015/11/16/456214018/from-mike- oreskes-what-we-talk- about-when- we-talk- about-virtual- reality

4. http://www.poynter.org/author/bmullin/

5. http://www.immersivejournalism.com/about/

6. http://streetsense.org/

7. http://streetsense.org/article/%F0%9F%93%B9-raise- to-rise/#.V0TirmZa6PU


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