Al Jazeera Contrast’s Hybrid VR/AR Experience Explores Mass Incarceration And Gentrification In Harlem
An emotional VR/AR journey inspired by the stories of over 12 formerly incarcerated women.
Riding high off a 2019 Emmy nom for their work on Yemen’s Skies of Terror, Al Jazeera Contrast, the digital wing of Al Jazeera’s Media network, was in attendance at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for the premiere of their latest immersive venture, Still Here.
Inspired by the collective stories of over twelve formerly incarcerated women now working alongside the Women’s Prison Association (WPA), this combination VR/AR experience tells the story of Jasmine Smith, a Harlem native who finds herself struggling to readjust to ordinary life after serving 15 years in prison for defending herself during a violent altercation.
“As a digital news media organization, we are charged with a responsibility to bring the world’s most pressing and crucial stories to life in compelling and impactful ways,” said Carlos Van Meek, Director of Digital Innovation and Programming, Al Jazeera Digital, in an official release. “This first-time selection by the Sundance Film Festival is an honor and signifies a new level of international recognition for the groundbreaking content the Al Jazeera Contrast team is creating.”
Composed of several different immersive elements, the “transmedia” experience began with an AR tour which provided a little more background into Jasmine’s difficult situation. The physical exhibit featured a series of custom images that—when scanned with a tablet device—unlocked AR portals leading to a handful of different scenes.
While scanning an image shaped like a coffee cup, for instance, I was transported to a black-and-white coffee shop where I listened to Jasmine sheepishly ask the manager for a job. The uncomfortable reaction from the shop owner spoke volumes about the way we as a society tread former convits as well as the growing issue of mass gentrification in the United States.
From here, I was taken to a private room inhabited solely by an HTC Vive Pro headset and a chair. Upon entering the VR experience, a series of monoscopic 360 videos began to play and I watched as Jasmine struggled to assimilate back into civilian life, find employment, and ultimately reconnect with the teenage son she was separated from during her time in prison. As the experience progressed, however, the videos quickly devolved from standard recreations to obscure VR performance art.
“The 360 videos were written and directed by Naima Ramos-Chapman; she’s actually one of the writers and directors on HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness,” said Rasool while speaking to VRScout. “So that’s her style, surrealism. I thought it would be really great to collaborate with somebody who would be able to bring that aspect into a story that’s sometimes really difficult to watch; it would actually make it a little more digestible and just give it a different context than the stories that we hear about incarceration.”
At the end of each video, the experience instructed me to physically rise from my chair. Every time I did, I found myself standing at a new spot within a volumetric living room filled with interactive objects intended to provide additional insight into the many real-world difficulties plaguing former convicts. For example, while in the kitchen, I received a breakdown of the horrendous food options provided to female inmates on a daily basis. It was an interesting addition to the experience, one that paired nicely with the non-interactive 360 videos.
Despite the relatively short time they’ve been active, Rasool and her all-female team have already established themselves as one of the most innovative and exciting groups of creators working in the field of immersive activism.
“Providing direct access to personal stories and voices that matter is at the heart of our mission, and we are thrilled that the Sundance Film Festival recognizes the importance of inclusion and the necessity to democratize the creative process and push the boundaries of traditional narratives,” adds Rasool in an official statement.”
For more information on Still Here check out https://www.sundance.org/projects/still-here .
Feature Image Credit: Sundance Institute, Al Jazeera Digital