Our Experience Filming the First VR Documentary on the Rohingya Refugee Crisis

You’ve probably seen it pop up on your news feed recently — horrifying tales of ethinic cleansing of the “world’s most persecuted minority”. The Rohingya. They are an ethnic group, the majority of whom are Muslims, that have been living for centuries in the heavily Buddhist nation of Myanmar in Southeast Asia.

When we began filming in Bangladesh to cover the Rohingya refugee crisis in April 2017, we witnessed what already seemed an overwhelming number of refugees. We couldn’t imagine that four months later, the numbers would have tripled.

The trailer for our virtual reality documentary, I Am Rohingya

Since August 25th, more than 80 villages in northern Rakhine have been set ablaze by security forces and mobs in Myanmar’s scorched earth campaign. Around 400,000 — most of whom are women and children — have fled to neighboring Bangladesh, settling in Cox’s Bazar in informal and makeshift settlements and encampments. Stories of the suffering, trauma, and gross injustice have since filled the headlines, as we hear about arson, rape, and extrajudicial killings.

In April, Contrast VR’s Editorial Lead, Zahra Rasool was in Cox’s Bazar, directing and filming our first original virtual reality documentary production. In line with Contrast VR’s mission statement, we wanted to create VR experiences around underreported stories, especially from the global south.

There Begum, 22, gave birth to her second child in a forest on the way to Bangladesh. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. | Mahmud Hossain Opu for Al Jazeera.

Speaking of the situation that these refugees are living in, she described that it was such a “heartbreaking story to experience; hearing about it or seeing pictures of it was not enough. It just felt it was the right fit for the medium of virtual reality, to be able to take the viewers out into the refugee camp, to be able to take them to these people and give them a glimpse of what their challenges are.”

Even before the recent massive influx of 400,000 Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh over the last month, the camps and informal settlements in Cox’s Bazar had already been overcrowded, with a lack of sufficient resources. Zahra describes her experience:

“It was overwhelming. As a journalist, I read so much about it and prepared myself as much as I could, but when I went there, the scale of it was just astounding. You hear there are thousands of refugees, but you don’t know what the number means until you’re there on the ground. At that time it felt overcrowded, so I can only imagine what the situation is like now, as Bangladesh doesn’t have the infrastructure to support these refugees. Even at that time, a couple of months back, they didn’t have running water, they didn’t have food, they didn’t have clothes — and these were just a small number of refugees compared to the numbers coming into the country now.”

Director Zahra Rasool (Bottom left) and Director of Photography Alan Bucaria (Bottom Left) with Jamalida and her community near Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh.

Coverage of the crisis at the time had been in a lull; the stories of the Rohingya had faded from previous news cycles. Contrast VR’s documentary, I Am Rohingya, follows the story of a young Rohingya muslim woman, Jamalida, as she tells us the persecution she faced in Myanmar and shows us her daily life now in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Yet, the stories were endless — “I was surprised by how willing everyone — men and women alike — was to share their stories. People would just want to come and talk to you about the situations that they are facing; they were hungry for people to know what they were going through. We were the only one of the few journalists that were there covering the story.”

Google Trends. The search interest for the term “Rohingya” over the past 5 years. Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart for the given region (worldwide) and time (5 years). A value of 100 is the peak popularity for the term.

Now, in the last month, there has been an incredible rise of coverage on the issue. Google Trends shows that in the first week of September 2017, the search interest of “Rohingya” was at the highest value it has been in at least the past five years.

Now that there is finally a spotlight on the persecution faced by the Rohingya, we hope that our VR film will be able to take our viewers into the stories so they can experience the challenges and strengths of the Rohingya firsthand.

Contrast VR’s I Am Rohingya, the first virtual reality experience reporting on the Rohingya refugee crisis, will premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) on October 5th-6th, then showcase at the Rio International Film Festival. It will be available for public viewing on VR headsets and Contrast VR’s social platforms in the next few months.


Directed by: Zahra Rasool
Produced by: Zahra Rasool and Aela Callan
Director of Photography: Alan Bucaria
VR Post Production: Maria Fernanda Lauret
Animations: Tasneem Amiruddin, Maria Fernanda Lauret, Kutlay Dede and Debbie Schedivy
Music: Vicki Hansen
Sound and Color: Maria Fernanda Lauret and Alan Bucaria
Production Assistance: Muktadir Rashid