VR Diaries: ‘Fight for Falluja’ Takes Viewers Inside a War Zone
There’s an old saying, “Walk a mile in someone’s shoes and you’ll know where they’ve been.” Recently, media have tried to turn this phrase into a reality, exposing their audience to the sensory feeling of being in the middle of a story or an event. We can begin to empathize with the situation. We can begin to understand its significance.
I never really watched a virtual reality story until the New York Times’s “Fight for Falluja.” As a rising foreign correspondent, the impact of ISIS upon war-torn countries and cities across the Middle East is a topic that automatically captures my attention and my heart. Nonetheless, I haven’t been to the Middle East. I have yet to embed myself into a war zone or experience the pain of an Iraqi refugee child — being forced out of his or her home to find safety elsewhere. This VR experience, however, takes me to those moments. I could see the smile of a boy sitting in front of the camera as his mother talked about how conditions in the refugee camps were great because at “least they were safe.” I looked around to find myself surrounded by Iraqi men who happily held the ISIS flag upside down — as a sign of disrespect to ISIS forces. Yet, what I remember the most out of this experience was when I saw the horizon of a barren Iraqi wasteland, and lying in the street was the body of a decapitated soldier. It was so powerful because it made my heart stop. As the narrator talked about this man lying on the ground, it made me see that the war against ISIS and against terrorism is fatal. It is affecting lives as I continue to write this post, and it’s not something that can be easily stopped.
This experience also used incredible close-up shots and narration to capture the beautiful bond between soldiers, the determination of families to survive, and the aftermath of an invaded city. Yet, the most exciting part was getting to put on the virtual reality headset and immediately be transported into a new world. Everywhere I turned, I couldn’t see a classroom; I could only see the city of Falluja.
I can’t think of a specific moment where the story was weak, but I would’ve loved to see more movement and immersion. Whenever I looked through the screen, it was as if the VR experience limited my movement. It would be interesting to find a way, if it isn’t already possible, to make it feel like I’m moving through the VR screen — as in when I move in the real world, my body also moves in the video.
The thing that did concern me a bit upon watching this video is that there is a lot of information that the narrator is telling the viewer. This technology is so innovative and immersive to the eyes that we may, accidentally, fail to contribute to our role as listeners. I often forgot what the narrator said because I was enjoying the beautiful close-up images of children — or smiling at the soldiers when they burst into laughter about one of their own exploded weapons. Therefore, I believe less can be more when it comes to virtual reality storytelling. If a producer or narrator wishes to tell the story, it would be nice to also make the narration appear on the screen. Since we are already focusing on our visual sensory experience, it might be easier and more effective to show the words play out on the VR screen for certain slides or situations. This might be able to get us on track about what the real story is about.
Other than this, the techniques used to tell this story were well crafted. The sound of the narrator effectively matched the somber tone of the piece, and I never felt rushed to learn or hear what he would talk about in each visual. I appreciated how the author separated the piece into chapters because it mentally prepared my mind to keep focusing on the story. On the technical side, there was never a faulty image. I failed to adjust the blurriness on my lenses and this would have made some of the images brighter and stronger. Yet, it was great that in any direction I turned, I could see a new part of the entire image, and everything I saw felt important and felt life changing to see.
Through this piece, I learned that storytelling can be more creative and engaging than something that is presented in a tw0-dimensional space. I can be emotionally charged from an experience I will never truly live through by simply putting on a headset and being transported to the other side of the world. It’s engaging because your eyes can never leave the experience, unlike watching a television newscast or looking at an image. I learned that this technology makes me personally empathize with the people who are going through this hostile living environment in the Middle East. I already feel their pain reading about the death tolls and the hardships of refugees in displaced communities, but by being able to see the tents and hear their thoughts as they direct it toward me (or it seems as though the answer is being directed toward me), I can truly understand the depths of their pain. I want to be there to help them and to get them out of this horrible living environment.
Thus, I would recommend this experience to anyone with any interest in VR technology and in-depth storytelling. It is a perfect blend of both, and it has a variety of engaging images that will make anyone feel somewhat emotional. However, people should focus on the narration of the story as much as they focus on the images because they might miss crucial information. This is something I would share with people on social media or encourage people to do by word of mouth. I know that by watching this piece, I am even more invested in my pursuit of a career as a foreign correspondent. I am inspired to create storytelling experiences like “Fight to Falluja” and be able to get others to go out there and make a difference in the lives of those who are living in hostility all over the world.