How We Partnered To Share the Story of the Rohingya to Over 30 Million People

Today, across the different channels of Contrast VR, AJ+, Amnesty International and Al Jazeera English, the story of Jamalida, a young Rohingya refugee now living in Bangladesh, has been watched by over a million people and has reached tens of millions.

Yet, two weeks ago, we were at a crossroads and had a decision to make.

We had a finished 360 documentary on our hands, one that chronicles an incredibly pressing issue of our times — that of the Rohingya refugee crisis. We had not anticipated the crisis to escalate so drastically when we filmed in April — we had planned to premiere it at the Vancouver Film Festival this week and circulate it on the film festival circuit before releasing it to a bigger audience in a few months.

I Am Rohingya, the virtual reality documentary on the Rohingya refugee crisis.

Timeliness, and its associated variable, ‘impact’, is a big consideration in this news documentary industry, although it is not so widely discussed outside of internal conversations. How do we work in tandem — if needed — with the ever changing ‘news cycle,’ in order to maximize impact?

For I Am Rohingya, Contrast VR and AJ+’s virtual reality documentary on what has been called the world’s most persecuted ethnic minority, we understood that the time is now. The need for action is now, the time for discussion would be too late tomorrow, next week, or next month.

“This film is essential viewing in that it offers a visceral look at how one woman’s life was brutally shattered by the Myanmar authorities’ campaign of repression against the Rohingya. For this to happen to a single family is a horrific crime; the subsequent ethnic cleansing of more than 480,000 Rohingya amounts to crimes against humanity. Jamalida’s story could not be more timely: With the UN Security Council meeting again this week, the world must take urgent action to stop the atrocities taking place in Myanmar’s Rakhine State,” said Tirana Hassan, Crisis Response Director at Amnesty International, who recently returned from the Myanmar/Bangladesh border.

When Amnesty International reached out to Contrast VR and AJ+ after hearing about our virtual reality documentary looking for ways to collaborate, we knew that together, we could bring our different expertise for a stronger and more timely release.

We decided to release the film the following week, far ahead of ‘our’ schedule, in a cross distribution between Amnesty International, AJ+, Al Jazeera English, and Contrast VR in order to reach as many people as possible. Within a week, we were ready to publish, “It all came together incredibly fast and pretty seamlessly” says Conor Fortune, the Senior Communications Advisor on Crisis at Amnesty.

“We’re excited to partner with Amnesty International to release this film. We hope that more people will view the film and be informed about the plight of the Rohingya refugees and the urgency of their situation. We’ve decided to release the film early in light of this escalating humanitarian crisis,” Zahra Rasool, Editorial Lead of Contrast VR

The partnership was a perfect fit, with each partner bringing their expertise and resources together:

“On the Crisis Response team at Amnesty, we’re constantly on the lookout for innovative ways to present our research from conflicts and humanitarian crises in different parts of the world… We’ve been looking into virtual reality as a medium to help bridge this gap and so I was very excited when I spotted a Medium blog a couple of weeks ago about Contrast VR’s work on I Am Rohingya,” discusses Conor Fortune.

“In our discussions, it became clear that we shared the common goals of communicating the humanitarian crisis to a larger audience. “Even when a lot of journalists and humanitarian agencies are on the ground, concerned individuals living far from the action simply hear endless statistics and condemnations rather than the voices of those most affected… I am Rohingya, and virtual reality, helps to bridge this gap because it immerses the viewer into Jamalida’s daily experience in a profoundly visceral way, helping them to connect on a more human level.”

“As a global human rights organization, we really appreciate Contrast VR’s ethos of trying to shine a light on human rights and social justice issues in the global south, so they seemed like obvious partners. What we brought to the table was our in-depth research into the current Rohingya crisis, as well as a worldwide distribution platform via our global movement of 7 million members and supporters,” says Conor.

The engagement has been high, and I Am Rohingya has been performing in the top 20% of Amnesty’s content for this year. Contrast VR and Amnesty International will go back to Bangladesh together to do more virtual reality reporting on the Rohingya refugee crisis, truly merging together our different areas of expertise.

This partnership made possible the release of a timely and pressing documentary, as well as allowing it to reach as many different audiences as possible. Raw in War (Reach All Women in War), a human rights organization, reached out to Contrast VR after watching the documentary I Am Rohingya. On their annual awards on October 7 to honour women human rights defenders of war, they are now paying special tribute to the courage of Jamalida “as a brave voice refusing to be silenced…”

A special thanks to Conor Fortune for his collaborative spirit.