Why the United Nations is making virtual reality documentaries as fast as it can

The stock stills and video galleries on VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR show our planet as an epic, infinitely varied paradise with countries to explore and cultures to admire. Geysers in Iceland, helicopter rides over New York City skyscrapers, even - beyond these shores - hi-res stills taken by the Curiosity Rover of another planet, Mars.

Gabo Arora is working hard to bring you back down to earth.

The UN senior adviser and filmmaker, speaking at Power to the Pixel's The Conference as part of the BFI London Film Festival, is in the middle of a collaborative series of films made with VRSE studio head and virtual reality pioneer Chris Milk. What do they want you to experience in VR? The effects of climate change on the world's rivers and forests. The aftermath for countries hit by Ebola. The refugee crisis up close and personal.

The first two documentary shorts, the emotional Clouds over Sidra and Waves of Grace, can be viewed on Samsung Gear VR or Google Cardboard via the VRSE app. The subjects: a day in the life of a twelve year-old girl living in the Syrian Za'atari camp in the Jordanian desert and the aftermath of the Ebola crisis in Liberia through the eyes of a survivor.

"For now, fast as I can, I'm trying to make similar things," said Arora. "We have a new one coming out on Nepal, we have another one that I shot in India with the Ganges river and pollution issues there. And we have a future one on China. The idea is to have a series by the end of the year so that when VR goes mainstream and a 15 year-old is unwrapping their headset, there isn't that much content and hopefully they will find this."

Social issues versus the internet

This is what we are really competing against - guns and games

The creatively inclined adviser, who has partnered with the likes of Humans of New York in the past, is on a mission to shake up the United Nations' advocacy efforts around real world issues. These are increasingly getting lost in attempts to reach BuzzFeed, Snapchat and YouTube conditioned internet users.

Arora keeps a straight face as he compares the number of views on a typical UN produced video, in the region of just 5,000 hits, to a video featuring a celebrity ambassador such as Angelina Jolie, around 87,000 hits. All well and good but what he really wants to see is the 6.5 million hits that a video titled How fast do burgers age?gets on YouTube (BuzzFeed, who else?).

"This is what we're really competing against. And, I swear, with VR it's the same goddamn thing," he said. "It's those guns and that pornography. There's nothing wrong with that but we have to somehow make our issues, some of the most pressing of our time, resonate more. The easy way to think is - that's not going to happen, these issues are boring. We're trying to change that, to get the early adopters and imprint young people with something before the guns and games are all they have."

Diplomats and street fundraisers

It might be in a race against boneheaded entertainment but the UN is already seeing results. Clouds over Sidra debuted at the World Economic Forum at Davos in January. 120 diplomats wore a VR headset to experience the eight minute film, before it went to the Sundance Film Festival as part of the Virtual Frontiers exhibit.

Since then, it has been edited down to a four minute short, translated into 15 languages and taken to the streets of 40 countries in the hands of face to face fundraisers for UNICEF and Amnesty International. "UNICEF's biggest fundraising is those face to face fundraisers that you probably avoid," said Arora. "But now you won't avoid them because they will have a VR headset."

The initial data coming through from the charities is that one in six people who watched Arora's film donated as a result, double the usual rate. It also increased the rate of people who signed up to donate in the future or on a regular basis. He puts this longer lasting impact down to an emphasis on "empathy and shared experience" over the shock and pity we all felt when we first saw the photograph of five year old Aylan Kurdi on the beach.

Now Gabo Arora sifts through requests for collaborations from people who want to raise the profile of a particular social issue using virtual reality filmmaking. Sadly, it's not that simple. VR won't work for every issue or campaign and films that look effortless to view are actually highly composed, Arora as a director was personally guided by director Werner Herzog's facts versus the truth philosophy.

The United Nations VR film series is not alone in this space. Vice News and Spike Jonze worked with VRSE on a news piece from protests in New York, ABC News is reporting from Syria in VR, the BBC has filmed in 360 degrees in refugee camps in Calais. The Sierra Club enlisted actor Jared Leto to narrate its climate change PSA for VR (merging traditional and futuristic advocacy) and RYOT News produced a film about the aftermath of the earthquake in Nepal. All, to some degree, employ creative control to tell the story in the most effective way.

It really goes back to what these broadcasters, producers and directors are competing against. "With a typical UN video, the reason it doesn't always totally resonate is that it is more concerned about talking points and less concerned about artistry," said Arora. "I knew it had to resonate in places like film festivals and everybody had to like it. I wonder how long that half life will be before the same thing happens that happened with other media. Our big goal with a lot of this was for it to have impact."

Clouds over Sidra and Waves of Grace are available to experience on Samsung Gear VR headsets as part of Virtual Stories at the BFI IMAX in London, in conjunction with the BFI London Film Festival. It runs until 18 October.

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