VR Diaries: ‘Clouds Over Sidra’ is Powerful and Fosters Empathy

Out of the three virtual reality pieces I’ve seen thus far, “Clouds Over Sidra” is by far my favorite. It had what was absent in both “Fight for Falluja” and “Zambia: Gift of Mobility” — not only were there more interviews, but the story was fully narrated in its entirety by a refugee. Having a 12-year-old Syrian, Sidra, share her story makes the experience all the more personable, and generates pathos.

I couldn’t pick a single most powerful part of the story but the decision of not only having Sidra narrate but taking us through her daily life was genius. We weren’t being forced to witness the harshness of her living style, but simply, what she does on a daily basis. We got to create our own relationship with her, and assumptions, which makes for the best kind of story experience. I liked that it didn’t focus on making you feel bad, but rather, made you want to take action and reach out.

The weakest part of this piece may also be what was the most powerful. By having only one person share her story, that is exactly what I got out of it: hearing only one side of the story. It would have been nice to hear from at least one more refugee, preferably a boy for a contrasting view.

What stays most vivid in my memory was when I was looking at all the kids running around, laughing and playing, on the grounds of the Zaatari Refugee Camp where children make up half the population of the 130,000 Syrians there. Especially when Sidra mentioned that girls were happy to be able to play soccer, because in other countries, only the boys are allowed to play — to witness the smiling faces in the girls, and how grateful they are for something that is an absolute given to me, really gave me a sense of perspective.

I feel so, so, beyond touched by this particular story. From the visuals complimented by Sidra’s voice and the allegory of the clouds, everything came together flawlessly. The storytelling techniques were especially incredible in this VR piece — it had what “Fight for Falluja” lacked. I got to know what was going on from the point of view of a child as I was seeing it all unveil — and what more innocent and honest than from a child’s perspective. Sidra was not only real, but kind, genuine, and funny. For example, when she shared that her mother likes the whole family to be home for dinner, and she still loves her mother’s cooking even though they don’t have the spices they had in Syria. Or how she views the men, mentioning that she doesn’t know quite how they work or think. I would definitely recommend sharing the whole story through someone, so beyond her years, like Sidra for the future of VR journalism — again, the point of view of a child is the most genuine response a journalist could get.

Another aspect that did well in this story is that although it was VR, I didn’t have to be constantly spinning and moving around, looking behind and besides me because what I needed to be seeing was catered to my main sight of vision. The visuals complimented her narrative perfectly, and made for a much less distracting VR experience. On the other hand, what I would have possibly avoided is only using one person because some audiences could be influenced only by what Sidra says and not think about other circumstances or opinions — the story could be closed off to only the world of Sidra in some minds.

Overall I learned again, how powerful VR is, in terms of empathy. It takes you out of your current life and puts you into another world, making you feel way more emotionally, than you would have if you were to just see a photograph or read an article. It makes you physically want to take action, share their stories, and be more active in making sure the world knows what’s really going on. Because yes, I know that we are in the biggest refugee crisis right now but I only felt sympathy, not empathy until I’m there with them, in virtual reality.

The only technical error I came across was that every time the scene changed, a message came up on screen to “touch key pad to reposition the screen” which was very distracting and annoying. But this experience as a whole meant a great deal to me. Every time I’m finished watching a VR piece through a headset, I think about all that I am grateful for — it makes me appreciate my own life and to not take anything for granted, when little girls like Sidra find ways to appreciate life when she has had everything taken away from her and is living through adversity beyond my imagination. It also makes me want to cry that there are so many girls out there like Sidra, longing for a better life, one that I, at times, don’t even realize how lucky I am to have.

Another comment I’d like to make is how so much of the world has not gotten on board with female and male equality. It pains me to see this mentality instilled in girls from such a young age. I hated hearing from Sidra that only the boys were allowed to play video games. But I also loved her unintended humor when she said that she thinks the men just work out at the gym because they like how they look in the mirror. She says this so earnestly and genuinely, and it doesn’t even seem like she’s trying to be funny.

Again, my view on the subject matter is heightened immensely and it just makes me want to look more into the crisis, as well as share the stories and spread just how important this matter is. It kills me that me alone can’t make a difference.