VR Documentaries Deliver the Realities of Refugee Living

It's easy to get lost in the documentary "Clouds Over Sidra" which immerses viewers in a 360° world of laughing children and families making a life in the refugee camp Za'atari. Sidra, a 12-year-old girl, takes you through a day in the life of a refugee. It's a short film, nearly 9 minutes long, with 15 scenes over which Sidra narrates different aspects of Za'Atari living. In each scene, viewers can fully rotate the camera to face any direction.

Clouds Over Sidra was directed by Gabo Arora, United Nations Creative Director and Senior Advisor in collaboration with filmmaker Chris Milk. This isn't Arora's first run at VR documentary-making. The power of "firsthand" viewing has been harnessed by the UN to spread awareness about Ebola plaguing Liberia (Waves of Grace), tragic deaths as a result of an Israeli bombing in Gaza (My Mother's Wing), the need for relief after a dire earthquake (Nepal Earthquake Recovery), and a new film is in the works about Burundian refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

United Nations Virtual Reality (UNVR) is a mobile app hosting a handful of VR films, including the ones listed above. Currently, the app is available for both iOS and Android. Connecting to a VR headset will turn your phone into a on-the-go, humanitarian viewing device. For the most part, a decent headset is going to cost a pretty penny, but Google has made them affordable with a $15 cardboard set. All films are also available to view online.

The realistic feel of a UNVR film translates across languages, and that's exactly why they've chosen to distribute the technology to places in turmoil with Aleppo, Congo, Gaza topping the list. In partnership with Samsung and Oculus, the United Nations is attempting to make VR film-making as readily available as Google Cardboard. Over 100 countries within the intergovernmental organisation are slotted to receive 360-degree camera gear to share aspects of their day-to-day life

Seeing a reality so far removed from the norms of the western world can be an arresting experience, emotionally as well as visually. The UNVR app aims to capitalize on this emotional pull by asking viewers to help in any way they can. A message at the end of each video urges people who are willing to donate to the cause in any way they can, be it time put into fundraising or campaigning for awareness or money. Help in any form is appreciated.

"We're really trying to change how we do storytelling within the UN. And I think all these films so far take an innovative approach to doing it," Arora said to Adweek. "It shouldn't just be about what the UN does, it shouldn't be about a donor, it shouldn't be about a program. It should be about the people."

An immersive experience, like a VR documentary which offers a 360° view of a world completely separate from our own, can drastically influence a person's feelings. As such, VR experiences have been previewed at high-level UN meetings to demonstrate the utility of such a powerful tool. They've also been shown at the SDG Action Campaign to connect with partners interested in creating advocacy platforms, fundraising, and spreading awareness. Using the newest advancements in technology have made it possible to "[push] the bounds of empathy," according to their mission statement.

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