#1212: Breakdown of Award-Winning “Reeducated” VR Doc & Translation into Interactive Component of Yorker Article on Chinese Prison Camps

The immersive documentary Reeducated (available on YouTube or Meta Quest) won a Peabody Award as well as the Outstanding Interactive Media winner of the New Approaches category of the New & Documentary Emmy in 2022. I had a chance to record this interview with the co-directors Ben Mauk and Sam Wolson just after it’s world premiere at SXSW 2021 (where it picked up a Special Jury Recognition for Immersive Journalism). This 360-video was based upon oral history testimony of 3 different prisoners within one of China’s reeducation centers within the Xinjiang region, and it was translated into an interactive component of the investigative journalism piece by Mauk published in the New Yorker titled “Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State: Survivors of China’s campaign of persecution reveal the scope of the devastation,” I had a chance to break down the creative process and story with both Mauk and Wolson back on March 18, 2021 exploring how this same story is told across these different formats using the unique affordances of print media, immersive 360 video, and an interactive translation of this spatial content embedded on the web.

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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the future of spatial computing and the structures and forms of immersive storytelling. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. So in today's episode, I'm gonna be digging into my archives from an interview that I did right after the world premiere of this immersive documentary called Reeducated, which has since won a couple of really big awards. It just picked up a Peabody Award, and it also won a News and Documentary Emmy in 2022, and the Outstanding Interactive Media winner of the New Approaches category. So, this is a piece called Reeducated. It's based upon a New Yorker article that came out on February 26th, 2021 called Inside Xinjiang's Prison State, Survivors of China's Campaign of Persecution Reveal the Scope of Devastation. So for anybody who's unaware, there's a lot of human rights violations that are happening in Xinjiang. Human Rights Watch in 2022 says that the government continued to implement far-reaching policies that severely restricted the freedoms of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and those from other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang, which threatened to erase their religious and cultural identities. So there's extrajudicial detentions that are happening. People are getting swept up, putting into these prison and concentration camps where people are forced to go through all these educational programs, but against their will, and it's pretty much a prison environment where there's lots of psychological and physical torture. And this is based upon a lot of different oral history testimony. In the article version, you get a lot of the context leading up to these different detentions, some information about the detention and the aftermath of the detention. And the immersive VR documentary is taking you inside of the direct phenomenological experiences and the stories, the oral history stories of these three different prisoners that create this composite experience. So they have a shared spatial context where they're all in prison in the same prison camp within Xinjiang. And then based upon the cooperation of the different stories, it created this special context that takes you through these composite stories that give you a sense of what it was like for these prisoners to be within this detention camp. And because it's virtuality, you get this sense of actually being embedded into these prison contexts, and it has a different emotional sense, and you're able to connect much more to the subjective and emotional and phenomenological embodied experiences of these detainees that you can't quite get if you're just looking at it on these 2D interfaces. You can actually watch this 360 video on YouTube just by scrolling into 2D, but I wouldn't recommend that, especially if you have a VR headset. You can either pull up your YouTube app or you can watch it in the Oculus browser, or you could just find it with the link in the description here to open it up on your Oculus Quest VR headset and be able to watch it directly I highly, highly recommend you check out the immersive experience and then go check out the article as well because what they were able to do was translate a lot of the different spatial components into these really interesting interactive components that give you this sense of some of the dimensions of the spatial context as you're reading through the article. In between these five different chapters, you have these little vignettes that are taken from this 360 video and actually some footage that isn't even included into the 360 video. It's a great case study to see what a print journalist can do within the medium of writing versus what are the specific affordances of virtual reality and how do they start to use these aesthetic decisions to differentiate some of these composite oral history experiences versus an individual subjective experience. And so we kind of dig into a lot of the different techniques that they're able to do and their process of fusing together all these different mediums to be able to tell the story of what's happened to these ethnic minorities within the Shenzhen region of China. So that's what we're covering on today's episode, Love Wins is a VR podcast. So this interview with the co-directors of Ben and Sam happened all the way back on Thursday, March 18th, 2021, right after their world premiere at South by Southwest. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:04:06.937] Sam Wolson: My name is Sam Wilson. I'm a immersive. Let's see. I, it's hard to know what to call yourself these days. I'm an immersive documentary director. And I work predominantly on immersive documentaries that have to do with humanitarian or environmental issues. And the latest piece is called Reeducated, which just premiered at South by Southwest. And yeah, that's me.

[00:04:32.209] Ben Mauk: My name is Ben Mock. I'm a writer and journalist. I usually am not working in the VR world. I'm usually a print magazine writer, and I contribute to places like the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine, the London Review of Books, Harper's Magazine, and a lot of my reporting concerns asylum and migrant communities and borderlands where interesting questions of citizenship and belonging tend to come up. Yeah, and Sam and I both developed this project that we're going to talk about today together, and we knew each other from living in Berlin and actually living down the street from each other. And he converted me to the belief that VR has a lot of journalistic potential and can do novel and innovative work in the world of journalism and kind of nonfiction narrative, which is not something that I necessarily believed before he sort of opened my eyes. And then we hit upon this project together. Yeah.

[00:05:33.640] Kent Bye: Nice. So I'll be very curious to hear a little bit more context in terms of either if there were specific VR pieces that inspired you to start to potentially translate this piece that you're working on into a VR piece, or just a little bit more context as to your journey into collaborating and working on this piece.

[00:05:50.440] Sam Wolson: In full transparency, I dragged Ben into some of my own work. So, you know, there's obviously a lot of other stuff, but yeah, I think I had showed Ben a piece I had done in Fukushima, I believe, right? And maybe something else I had done for National Geographic in Botswana, which was a short series of films about the Okavango Delta. And then I think I also showed him a Star Wars game as well. Ben, I don't know what that was.

[00:06:14.992] Ben Mauk: Yes, my encounter with Darth Vader was definitely a significant memory in my journey toward VR. But no, Sam showed me some of his work, both in Botswana and surrounding the Fukushima disaster, and then a previous piece he'd done for The Times Magazine on the war in Sudan. And they were all just terrific pieces. And I think Sam is a very careful, filmmaker and a careful use of this technology and he's very cognizant of the way in which new mediums can be used in a gimmicky way or just as kind of like a test of the platform and I think he's really conscious of strategies for avoiding that feeling that you sometimes can get like the train running at the screen in like the early motion pictures you know that kind of thing. So there's none of that in any of his work, but also kind of understands how powerful it can be for a viewer to be brought into a space that you just have no access to, either because it's very remote or it's existing in kind of a totally securitized, totalitarian space that even independent journalists can't get into. and that you know that I think there are for a thoughtful filmmaker a thoughtful journalist you can kind of think through when is VR appropriate and Sam kind of showed me these films he had done which for me were kind of case studies for when VR can really contribute something to somebody's understanding of an event or a space. I think your film on Fukushima in particular kind of gave you an experience that you would just not get from reading an article about it or even like watching a movie or seeing photos or something. And it was not a disaster movie. It was not kind of about the tsunami or about the meltdown. It was about these people's lives. And you sort of enter into it in a way that is, yeah, has really stuck with me. And I had been reporting on Xinjiang for a couple of years. I had been reporting from this region of China and I had done a few different reports. You know, I had done kind of a traditional magazine piece for the New York Times Magazine about this region. I put together an oral history about Xinjiang and about the mass internment drive of ethnic and religious minorities of mostly Turkic people. And that was published in The Believer. And I was kind of like thinking through these problems of form and what the advantages and the drawbacks are for different forms of journalism. You know, the oral history was one that I thought had a lot of advantages for a subject like this, where you're really relying on firsthand testimony. But at the same time, for an oral history to be really compelling as evidence, as testimony has to be really long and really dense. And that's what this previous project was. And I was trying to think of a way to bring in readers and slash viewers who might not want to read a 25,000 word oral history about a pretty harrowing subject, and also just kind of ways to show different facets of this phenomenon in that's happening in Northwest China.

[00:09:06.278] Kent Bye: And I'd be curious to hear a little bit more context in terms of the timing of how that happened. Like, did you have the article pretty much finished or were you in discussions from the very beginning? And then it says publish in the New Yorker. And so at what point was the New Yorker brought in in any official capacity? So I'm just curious to hear about all the logistics and then we'll kind of dive into the story bits.

[00:09:27.209] Sam Wolson: Sure. Uh, so as Ben just mentioned, he'd been reporting on this topic for a while and you know, we had discussed a few times whether or not there would be a way to do this in an immersive storytelling context. And initially when we started having these discussions, it didn't really seem to make sense. You know, there were these single person testimonies, there were leaked documents, there were satellite photographs, but it didn't seem like there was actually a really good way to bring people into these spaces or, you know, VR is expensive, it's time consuming, it's really hard to do. as a storytelling medium. So, you know, it wasn't until Ben found out in his reporting that he had found three guys who had been at the same camp at the same time, which was both unprecedented at the time in terms of reporting on the topic. but also something that we immediately knew would make for a reason to bring this into VR. We could then basically do sort of reconstruction of these forbidden spaces in a way that just experiencing space in VR is I think something that's really, really unique in a way that it's just emulating in some ways how we experience the world. And so it's a very natural jump to go from building an environmental space, which is something that is really valuable to understand what these places were and sort of the routines and the mundane aspects of these camps, and something that I think is really hard to translate to other types of journalistic spaces, you know, whether that's an article or a video or a photograph or something. So it became once he found those three things, we started talking about it again, it became really evident that it would be worth trying to figure out a way to do this. And, you know, I was really inspired after reading Ben's work and his believer story and some of his other pieces, just by some of the art and his other work. And we really, from the beginning, before we came to The New Yorker, we really had this vision for how aesthetically we were hoping this would come together. That included this inky sort of lyrical but descriptive art style in sort of a VR space. But also from the beginning, we were really interested in making this accessible across other spaces as well, which meant that we wanted there to be an interactive that wouldn't you know, the VR can be, uh, only certain people are going to be able to engage with that. And if they're engaging with it through YouTube or through a browser, it's like, it's not quite as meaningful as a way if you're strapping on a headset, but you know, if we can take elements of that and bring it into an interactive and sort of have it exist in multiple spaces, this could become a much more meaningful project in that way.

[00:12:13.955] Ben Mauk: Yeah, just to back up a little bit, just in case, I don't know how familiar your listeners might be with this region of the world. So Xinjiang is one of five special regions in China called autonomous regions, although that's sort of a misnomer, that are set apart or that were set apart decades ago, in part because they had large non-Han populations, the large minority populations within China. And in Xinjiang, you may have heard that Uyghurs are the largest ethnic population in Xinjiang, or at this point, it's sort of debatable. There may be about as many Han people, but Historically, it's a region that has very close ties to Central Asia. The majority of the population is Muslim. And early in the 20th century, there were multiple attempts to kind of establish a independent country there, a republic of East Turkestan. And you'll often hear Uyghurs and Kazakhs and other members of other ethnic minorities there refer to the region as East Turkestan rather than Xinjiang, which means new frontier in Chinese and is viewed by these groups as kind of a as sort of a colonial or imperialist term for this place. And it's long been a place where the Chinese state has operated kind of surveillance and securitization activities and where the minority population has been put under kind of special pressures. But in the past about four years, four or five years, these pressures have increased in special ways and really exponentially in terms of there being a new campaign of extrajudicial detention and what the Chinese government views as kind of a necessary like de-radicalization or de-extremification measures in the region, but effectively what they amount to, according to many, many eyewitness testimonies and people whose family members have disappeared in the region, is kind of an effort to stamp out the practice of Islam, except for like very specific orientalizing state approved modes of it, and sort of stamp out these ethnic identities, these Turkic ethnic identities in the region. as part of assimilating this region into sort of normative Han practices and sort of assimilating them into the cultural identity that the majority of the country ascribes to. So that's kind of a long view of what's happening. And in the past few years, it's become extremely difficult to get even just news out of the region. The border with Kazakhstan, which used to be quite porous, has effectively closed. And independent journalists are virtually unable to report in the region. If they are, they're followed and surveilled and prevented from accessing a lot of different spaces. And it's impossible to enter these facilities, these camps, which the Chinese government calls vocational training centers, unless it's as part of a highly choreographed propaganda tour. So that's kind of the background. And when Sam says, I found these three people who are in a camp together, I've spoken with probably a dozen people who have been in this type of extrajudicial detention in Xinjiang in the past few years. But it's quite hard to find people who were in these camps and then got out of the camps and then and then left China. Many of them came to Kazakhstan, which is right next door, especially if they happen to be ethnic Kazakh. And, you know, then, of course, they have to be willing to speak to a journalist and have to be willing to speak on the record, ideally. So it's pretty rare to find these accounts. And it's extremely rare to find accounts from the same facility. But you can see why that would be important, because if you just have one eyewitness to a facility, well, maybe their memory is not great or for a variety of reasons, not as significant a piece of evidence as if you have kind of multiple angles on this facility of multiple people who are kind of overlapping in the same space. So as I continued to visit the region over several trips, I got to know more and more people who had connections to Xinjiang, and not just people who were from that region, but people who were human rights activists in Kazakhstan, or they were running databases, collecting evidence. And through these connections, I found these three men who were in the same camp at the same time. And that offered, I think, a special opportunity. I think Sam immediately recognized that this was a kind of a special opportunity, because now we could really build on these memories in kind of a spatially interesting way. And as Sam points out, part of the drama of the film is that we are using these accounts, and you kind of hear the men in your ear sort of recounting their time there, as these spaces are being built around you and the actual kind of construction of this re-education camp in Ta Chiang, the cell, the classroom, the kind of yard outside where they were all transferred from camp to camp. The construction of those spaces becomes kind of part of the motivating drama of the film that sort of moves you through the events.

[00:16:51.357] Sam Wolson: And just to add one more thing to that really quickly, you know, so we had brought together the concept of this story to a certain degree. And that's when we had approached the New Yorker who immediately became partners on the project and saw the value of the reporting. And, you know, from the beginning was really excited about the ambition of this project, which ended up being, I think the most, I don't want to say this wrong, but the most ambitious digital project that they've ever done before. between the Web Interactive and the 360 film. So they were incredible partners and supporters throughout that entire process.

[00:17:26.346] Ben Mauk: And yeah, we knew from the start that this was going to have a component that was going to live on the web in two dimensions and was going to involve kind of a long article by me that would be about the experience of these three men, but also about other experiences in Shenzhen. We sort of envisioned it almost from the very start. And certainly once we had done the reporting in December as kind of a panorama of life, in Xinjiang, not just for the detained, but also for people who, you know, maybe they had Communist Party cadres come and live in their homes with them and kind of instruct them on proper behavior. Or maybe they had to give a forced confession in front of a village of 500 or 1,000 people. Or they may have been sentenced to kind of forced labor. They may have had a family member who was sentenced to a prison term for their religious practices, for being an imam, for example. So we knew that we wanted to somehow intertwine all of these stories together in these two different projects and to Sam's credit that he saw that the VR film what really would work for that was focusing on this very specific inaccessible space. of this particular re-education camp. And then for the interactive, we could kind of use some of those assets on a website and kind of a scroll based interactive environment. So, you know, the user will scroll through some of these 360 environments and kind of do a 360 degree turn through the cell and see what the space looks like. And I think that was sort of an elegant solution to the fact that you can't really experience like a VR film if you're just watching on a desktop, but you can kind of indicate the dimensionality of the space and kind of the work that went into building these spaces for the film in this kind of more capacious form, this web interactive.

[00:19:02.354] Kent Bye: Yeah, I wanted to share a little bit of my direct experience of the VR piece and then the follow on being able to read some of the additional details. So it reminds me of other pieces that look at solitary confinement, like six by nine, or a lot of the work from like forensic architecture that go into these places and they, they look at these buildings from satellite photos, and then they kind of reconstruct the buildings to say that there's these human rights violations that are happening there. And I find that that kind of spatial reconstruction just really helps ground me into that world and into that space. And there's a certain element of that as well, that there is a number of different layers to the story. And I think the VR really shines when you focus on the direct phenomenological experiences of these people who have been caught up and put into these jail. And then there's these additional layers on top of that, which is that their relationship to the guards and they have information that they're being told or whatnot. then there's a whole other higher level, which is the CCP or the Chinese government, who's kind of dictating this. And we can only read the tea leaves in terms of extrapolating what their intentions might be, because what they're saying is different from what they're doing. But that aspect of that story is perhaps better told in say, the written form to get into that. So I found myself like, almost like a Russian nested doll. There's different aspects of this where you, by starting in the VR first, I felt like I kind of started at the emotional core of the experiences that these people went through. And then as I started to read this, I already kind of know some of the arc of what is going to happen in this story. But still at the end, there's specific questions around like, okay, why is this happening again? Like, is this just racism? Is it ethnic cleansing? Is it all these other aspects that I think is probably even more difficult of a story to tell. But I'm just curious to hear your perspective of how you kind of think about that. And, you know, the oral history, the emotional heart and the direct embodied experience, the environment, and then from there, kind of more abstracted relational dynamics that are maybe more difficult to turn into a picture.

[00:21:04.319] Sam Wolson: And I was, let me just say something, you know, I think just hearing your journey of the experience, I think in some ways, exactly what we were hoping to achieve. Because for me, as someone who's been working in VR 360 documentary for a while, you know, I sort of know the limitations of what you can achieve in terms of conveying information to people in that space. It's not a space where you go in to get really, really dense information conveyed to somebody. To me, when I'm really excited to do in that type of filmmaking is like exactly what you're saying. It's sort of this emotional journey. And ultimately those environments that we built were very meticulously constructed, as you mentioned, forensic architecture, who definitely was someone we were looking at before the project. You know, we were looking at satellite photographs, we were looking at leaked documents, we were actually working with the interview subjects themselves, having them draw pictures, having our artist actually came with us to Kazakhstan, to interview basically everyone we talked to, but particularly the three guys that were in the film, you know, how big was the room? What did the chair look like? How far apart were the beds? What did the toilet look like? What did the cameras look like? What did you watch on TV? What brand of TV was it? You know, so basically there is this truth to these spaces that was meticulously reconstructed, but ultimately you come out of the experience, as you say, I think with an emotional approach to their journey, you know, and I think within the film and what they went through, what they actually experienced. I mean, they didn't know why they were there. You know, you get picked up for having WhatsApp or Oren Beck, who's like, I don't understand what's going on. I don't understand why I'm here. You know, so I think we're definitely trying to impart that Kafka-esque sense of impenetrable bureaucracy and terror in the film, but then in the article, it is a space where Ben's incredible reporting has more room to extrapolate on some of these other questions. Sorry, Ben, go ahead.

[00:23:04.096] Ben Mauk: No, that's, that's actually, that's a great answer. And I agree with all of us. I mean, one thing that Sam kind of had to hold my hand as we were kind of developing the script together, and after we'd done the reporting, and we were figuring out what scenes are going to be in the film, and what parts of the interviews we're going to You know, one thing he kind of had to import to me is how information poor VR is as a medium in terms of like, you know, you have very little text that you can conceivably ask somebody to read in a VR film. It's like not a not a comfortable place to read a whole wall of text. It's a really comfortable place to kind of look at a visual scene and like explore a space. But it is not somewhere you want to give people a bunch of statistics. So, you know, I remember I had kind of some initial front matter that I wanted and we probably cut down the front matter by like 80% or something or 90% just because there's just way too much material in there. Yeah, I would say that, you know, even like, you know, I'm used to writing an article for a magazine and most of the research and reporting you do is kind of below the surface. It doesn't actually appear in the text. It just, it contributes to the text because, you know, you're bringing all of this information to bear on how you write it and what kind of choice quotes from an interview or choice statistics or whatever you do include. But 80% of it is kind of below the surface. And in a VR film, I would say that goes up to like 95% or something. But I think you can tell in the film that all of this reporting and all of this research is there beneath the surface. I think the nature of these spaces, especially the spaces that were based on these multiple, overlapping, cross-corroborating accounts, like the cell that they lived in or the classroom, I think the ways in which those are constructed and the ways in which you kind of hear the men being interviewed kind of describing the space, okay, there's bars here, there's a window over here, I think that kind of helps to indicate to the viewer just how much unstated reporting went into developing these spaces. And like Sam said, Forensic Architecture is a group that we were kind of looking at, but at the same time, we were conscious that what we were making was not a piece of forensic evidence for a courtroom. It's a dramatic narrative and it's about three experiences that ultimately were subjective and we wanted to convey, you know, I would say that as important as kind of the accuracy of these spaces that we were building was conveying kind of the subjective experiences of the three men whose stories we were telling. Like, we really wanted to convey the despair and isolation that, I mean, for me, having heard a dozen of these accounts from these camps is sort of universal to memories of what happened there. Like, everyone felt that they didn't know why they were there. And they had no idea if they were going to be there the rest of their lives, if they're going to be released tomorrow. And this really terrorized them psychologically. So we wanted to convey that. And, you know, so there's moments in the film that are less realistic, where the guards that were in one of the subjects Ornbeck gets interrogated, and then he experiences water torture. And this is actually an example of a scene where in the interviews we conducted, we heard a lot of experiences of torture, But it's easy to over rely on these kind of like really visceral atrocities and accounts like this. We didn't want to do that. So that when Orenbeck experiences this water torture, it sort of stands in for a lot of accounts of torture and solitary confinement that I have heard as a journalist. reporting on these camps in Xinjiang, these experiences are really common. So we have this one kind of subjective experience where it's just Ornbeck describing his interrogation, which obviously none of the other two men were not present for. So we let that interrogation kind of expand subjectively, like the guards sort of grow impossibly tall and Sam I think had in mind this aesthetic of like noir German expressionism as kind of like a stylistic touchstone for something like this, which I think was like a nice touchstone to have. So there are these moments in the film that are obviously intentionally not forensic reconstructions, but we kind of viewed the film as kind of a balance between doing this kind of reconstructive work, this kind of journalistic work, and then telling a story that's true to the subjective experiences that these folks had.

[00:27:02.510] Sam Wolson: And just to add on to that really quickly, so another really important part of this film is the art. which every single inch of this film that you see is actually pen and brush and ink on paper done by this incredible artist, Matt. And he then would have to take that, scan every single frame, including all of the animation, which was done it was cell animation, you know, like old school, draw a frame, turn the page, draw the next frame. Everything was scanned in and then brought into Cinema 4D and reconstructed by Nick Rubin and his team at Dirt Empire to actually build these three-dimensional dioramas that were living, breathing environments, you know. But like we were talking about earlier, the reporting before this felt very distancing and sort of sterile in some ways. It was hard to connect emotionally with what people were going through. And by having Matt utilize his approach, his artistic sensibilities, we were able to hopefully make this world feel more human. you know, you see an artist's hand in every part of this environment, which, you know, I think is sort of an olive branch to the viewer to feel sort of the humanity and the world that we're building rather than sort of very 3D feeling reconstructed environments that had been done a few times before this. And as Ben mentioned, you know, and then the film sort of ping pongs between these reconstructed environments where you're describing sort of what happens in the cell, what happens in the classroom. We did this, we sat here. And then into these more expressionistic moments where we dive into individual experiences, you know, such as the water torture scene or Urbikette getting surgery without anesthesia. And these become even more emotional expressions of what they experienced, which I think was incredible to work in VR to sort of do that and work in these expressionistic ways, which was something also very new to me, but really exciting.

[00:29:01.823] Ben Mauk: Yeah, I'll just say that the artist Matt Huynh has done a ton of work in this space on like migration and asylum. And he really just knows how to humanize these stories without rendering them melodramatic or somehow like otherizing these experiences of pain and suffering. And I think he really like enabled us to pursue these more subjective, expressive things without worrying that we were going to make a misstep.

[00:29:29.074] Kent Bye: Yeah. And Park City of 2020, the last trip that I went to, there was Sundance, but there's also the Slamdance Film Festival. And there was a documentary there called Ask No Questions, which was looking at the Falun Gong and really tracing specific events that they had encouraged all these people with their mothers and children to self-immolate themselves. They were arguing in the piece was that they were constructed propaganda used against the Falun Gong. The Falun Gong represented a challenge to the Chinese Communist Party. There's the taboo things that you don't talk about, TNM Square or Tibet or Taiwan. There's these certain topics that in China are just verboten and that will be censored online. But the other interesting dynamic that's happened with China is just that you have everything that happened with the NBA and Hollywood, that you want to follow what the rules are so you don't cut yourself off from this huge Chinese market, meaning that you have this self-censorship that then gets extrapolated out. And also you have all these United States tech companies that have things produced in China. So there's all these ways in which that we're kind of enmeshed into China, and that it seems like there's these human rights abuses that people kind of have to turn their head the other way, or if there's enough evidence that is produced by these human rights organizations. I guess the question that I'm getting to is that after I watch this piece and I see all the horrible things that these people had to go through, the big question that I'm left with is, number one, why is this happening? And then number two is what can be done about it, given all these other dynamics, of the difficulties of even trying to prove a story like this, given how locked down it is and given how the control of information flow is such that it's difficult to maybe establish a narrative that even within the context of the international scene outside of China, it seems to be difficult to get attention to these issues. So it feels in some ways a little depressing and hopeless to say, okay, if this is indeed happening to these people, you have all these other layers of political and economic entanglements that make it even more complicated that is difficult to even start to begin to tell that story.

[00:31:41.456] Ben Mauk: Yeah, it, you know, there's a lot one could respond to there. I think it's also easy for the stories like this to get co-opted into a political narrative that their makers don't necessarily intend. I think, you know, one element that you did not mention is that you know, these stories of human rights abuses are attended to and sometimes abused or misused by China skeptic politicians on the right in the United States, trying to kind of stoke a third Cold War or whatever with China. And, you know, there's political figures that use the situation in Xinjiang and the plight of the Uyghurs in ways that strike me as self-serving and maybe insincere, but as politically convenient. And it makes it complicated to know exactly how to approach a story like this and to do justice, you know, primarily to the people to whom these events are happening, but also to try to contextualize it in a way that it doesn't then become kind of a ready political weapon or cudgel. And I did try, you know, in the interactive, I quote quite a bit from Chinese authorities and Chinese party positions and white papers in order to present to the reader what the government thinks that it's doing. And I think even saying the government is obscuring the fact that there's a lot of different, you know, there's local governments, there's the regional government in Xinjiang that's run by Chen Guanggao, who had produced this crackdown on civil society in Tibet before he came to Xinjiang. And then there's kind of the National Party and I think one of the tragedies is that I think the ramp up of these camps and these events were regional and local governments were given these kind of broad autonomy to act and to sort of fulfill orders that the full repercussions of which were maybe not understood at every level. So anyway, I'm rambling now, but basically in this interactive, I did want to try to indicate what these government figures might think that they're doing at each level and how, you know, one of the subjects of the interactive is a woman named Chopin, who talks about how a party cadre came and lived at her house. And it was sort of horrifying to her to have this man there when her husband wasn't away, kind of sleeping in the house and then telling her how to act and burn books in her yard and stuff like that. At the same time, she says, and I quote her in the piece saying, you know, he wasn't the worst one that I heard about. He was doing his job. He had to call his superiors and report how his visit went. He didn't have a choice in the matter. So I think this awareness of how people are wrapped up in these policies, that they don't feel that they have a lot of power to change, and that, you know, there's some elements of truth in the kind of line that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and these kind of propagandic efforts claim that China does want to reduce poverty in the region. They do want to economically assimilate Xinjiang. I think there's arguments about the extent to which this is a neocolonial and capitalist project that's being brought to a region that is mineral rich, oil and gas rich, underdeveloped. But anyway, in the interactive with the limited space I had to work with, I did try to gesture towards some of these economic and cultural facets. And I did not want this to be something where you left without kind of the proper context for what the Chinese government thinks that it's doing.

[00:35:00.007] Kent Bye: Yeah, but curious to hear from you, Sam, in terms of the choice at the end, you are showing actual 360 video of the people that actually had gone through this. Then you also have like a little bit of the epilogue in terms of what they're dealing with now with that. And so, yeah, as you think about a piece like this and all those complicated entanglements. Just curious how you thought about how to either still ground it within the personal story versus to try to point towards any of that stuff, or just kind of leave it for other media to cover some of the other reasons why. I mean,

[00:35:33.570] Sam Wolson: Like I said before, from previous projects, I was very aware of the limitations of working within, let's say 360 specifically, right? And there's a little bit of context at the very beginning, giving you a location, giving you you know, a little bit of backstory. Who are these guys? Where are we? When are we? You know, there's some camps, but beyond that, I think to me, I really want people to come out of this piece, ultimately wanting to ask the exact same questions that you were just asking us. How do I know more about this? What's the right thing to do? I mean, I don't think as a journalist, I've never felt like when I've worked on projects that it's my position to then go answer some of those questions. I see journalism more as just presenting the most accurate information that you can find and giving that to the general public. And then it's sort of on their behalf to figure out, should we protest certain companies? Should we do this? Should we do this? Should we talk to our politicians? I mean, that's sort of the foundation of a free press and democracy in some way. So I think like, I'm very much about presenting this emotional narrative, going to these portraits at the end, which I think were really about bringing this back to reality. You know, we spend so much time in the film in this, in some ways, very aestheticized representation of this space. And then to be face to face with these real human beings who actually experienced these things, who, you know, you're listening to their voices the entire time. I mean, you're, podcaster, you know, how intimate the human voice is and just how that feels to have someone sort of whispering in your ear for so long, you know, but then you have that throughout the film, but then to be eye to eye with this person, you know, with just the silence of the environment around them, I think hopefully brings it again, back to this, this human question, you know, this was something that these guys experienced. What do you think about that? How are you going to sort of incorporate that into your own moral framework or whatever. And then hopefully it pushes people to also want to go engage with Ben's piece and answer some of these questions for themselves, you know, but it's like you were saying as well, it's, it's really challenging in terms of the attention war, let's say, you know, we're asking a lot of people from this, you know, watch a VR film for 20 minutes, read Ben's piece for 30 minutes, go figure out what to do with all this information afterwards. You know, it's a lot to ask of people. So, you know, I think, I'm just excited in some ways as well to be in spaces like this, even in other VR spaces. I mean, I think it's incredible to be having this type of conversation in a space or to an audience who might not be engaging with these types of topics in other ways, you know? I mean, that, I think, ultimately, if we can get into these other spaces and have people asking the questions that you're asking them, I feel happy with what we've done with the film and the interactive.

[00:38:26.430] Ben Mauk: Yeah, and I'll also just add that I think it's kind of a an illness of the information economy that our response, and I think this is a natural response, but our response to engaging with a work like this is feeling that you need to figure out what to do with the information. I don't think you necessarily have to do anything with the information. I think it is enriching to have the information, to have an experience like this, to broaden your knowledge of the world. And, you know, it's not always like fun or comfortable or like a happy story. But I think, you know, I often will hear from people who have like read articles I've written, especially about this subject and say, like, you know, like, what can I do? Meaning kind of like, who can I give money to? Or like, where can I write a letter or something? And I think it's healthy to interrogate that reaction when you have it. Like, obviously, I hope people do kind of write letters and give money to organizations and things like that. But it's for me, it's not the primary impulse for making a project like this. I think the project itself is in terms of raising awareness and just like making these stories better known is, you know, an end in itself and doesn't need to be part of some larger ambition.

[00:39:37.628] Kent Bye: I'm curious to hear a little bit from you, Ben, in terms of you're a writer, you've been working in the writing medium, and then now all of a sudden you're working with this virtual reality project and working with these immersive media and eventually producing this interactive element. But I'm curious how working with VR and Immersive 360 Video changed your own process of either writing and or storytelling.

[00:40:04.995] Ben Mauk: Yeah, that's a great question. This was a really exciting and interesting opportunity for me and I learned a great deal about filmmaking even, but also about virtual reality filmmaking. And yeah, and about, it did require me to think hard about storytelling and the fact that storytelling is not one medium. You know, it really does depend on what medium you're working in and what technologies you're working in, what a story looks like. You know, in a sense, this is trivially true. If you're writing a short series of blog posts or something, then you're telling a different story than if you write like a 10,000 word feature article for a magazine. And that distinction is definitely exacerbated when you're talking about a visual medium like virtual reality. And I think it did make me think about some of the conventions of journalism and some of the conventions of magazine writing. You know, one example would be kind of the focus on character and having, it's almost like kind of a novelistic approach where you follow one character. In the article, we do kind of have a panorama, but there is one character who you would call the main character. It's one of the guys in the film, In the film, it's not often easy to tell the characters apart. So you don't necessarily know, unless you're really paying attention, or you've seen it a thousand times, like Sam and I have, it's not necessarily clear which event is happening to which character. You kind of have these three characters and they have different voices, but even the voices are not always totally distinguishable. And this was something that we talked a lot about in the filmmaking process, if this was how we wanted to approach it, if we wanted to somehow use some artificial means to distinguish the characters for the viewers that had certain advantages and certain disadvantages. And I think ultimately what we chose to do was was interesting. It was interesting from a narrative perspective to have this kind of group narrative voice where you don't necessarily you know, some people might follow it, but some people might not. And it's certainly not necessary to the film to know who's speaking at any one time. You know, and also just one effect of that, I think, is that the kind of momentum of the film then becomes the elaboration of these spaces, rather than one character's journey through these spaces. It kind of actually becomes the creation of the cell has like a momentum of its own, aside from one particular character's experiences. And that's something that would be very hard to achieve in a piece of magazine writing, but that it turns out comes very natural to virtual reality. So that, yeah, you know, among the many lessons that I had this year working on this project was the kind of like ways in which virtual reality does open up certain narrative forms and techniques that were not previously open to me.

[00:42:43.209] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'm curious to hear that turned around for you, Sam, in terms of how either the structure of this story and or the context of it happening in a prison and having government bureaucracy and all these other religious and political elements that are also mixed in there, but how either this story or the medium of it kind of also existing in another form, how that informed your process and doing this piece as contrasted to the previous 360 video pieces you've done.

[00:43:13.376] Sam Wolson: Um, yeah, I mean, as you mentioned, I was actually thinking about this the other day, how I feel like there's been a lot of VR pieces that are about prison or solitary confinement or confinement or claustrophobia, or, and I think it's sort of interesting to me, this medium seems so suited to telling those types of stories. And, you know, particularly for our piece, you know, often 360 video, I feel like within the immersive storytelling world sort of gets put into its little box over here as its own thing away from the sick stuff types of projects. And, you know, it makes me really sad in a lot of ways, because first of all, I don't think any of these things have really been explored enough to know what they are even at this point, you know? And when we're already sort of moving on to the newest, greatest thing with new bells and whistles, we haven't even figured out how to tell a story in 360. But anyways, this is another rant. I can go on another time. But, you know, for this project in particular, the limitations of 360 were actually perfect for telling this story. You know, the fact that you can't move your head, you can't move around in the space, you're sort of stuck it aids the sense of isolation that we're trying to convey and that we want you to feel from what the people in the spaces are feeling. You know, I think this was storytelling wise, the most challenging project that I've worked on because it, as you were saying, it's such a rich, complex topic and what parts of that can we bring into 360 and VR and make it meaningful in that way? You know, and I think it took, you know, again, as to why I was hesitant until we found that really good fit that we mentioned with the three overlapping narratives, I was hesitant to even do this because I was like, well, oh man, how are we going to, are we going to do, are we going to try to do a sixth off thing where we're like taking 20 people's stories? And then, you know, I mean, you can go crazy with this stuff, you know? So I think on the Fukushima piece, the last one I was working, my co-director on that was a documentary photographer. And that's also where my background comes from, working internationally as a documentary photographer, filmmaker before entering into VR. And, you know, we were really inspired by, let's say the narrative structure of like a photo story to tell that piece, you know, instead of using like cinema or traditional documentary, which I think a lot of documentary and VR uses certain tropes and just sort of like shoehorns it into the VR world in terms of like storytelling mechanics. And so we were interested in like, okay, let's like forget about linear narrative and voiceover and all of these things and just try to do something completely different that maybe falls on its face, but maybe feels more like existing in a series of photographs that tell you a story over the course of it, you know? And I think I learned a lot from that project and from the other projects previously that I worked on in Sudan and Botswana and other various things. But this one, you know, because it can't exist in a bubble in a way that the Fukushima project really, you know, there's a little bit of text at the beginning, but the rest of it's really about the intimacy of being in these spaces and being with the people and feeling these environments. This project, you need to understand what people are saying, you know, and so you need to understand a little bit of the context and their emotional states. And yeah, so it took a really long time to, as Ben was even writing the interactive and sitting alongside this, what are we doing in there and what are we doing in here and how are we balancing these things? What text do we need at the beginning? What context do people need? You know, I think it took a long time to hopefully strike that balance, which I feel like we ultimately hopefully did.

[00:47:01.376] Kent Bye: Oh, yeah, for sure. Yeah. Well, yeah, just to kind of wrap things up here, I'm curious to hear from each of you what you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling might be and what it might be able to enable.

[00:47:16.323] Ben Mauk: Ben? I'm exactly the wrong person to answer this question. Having helped to make exactly one virtual reality film, Yeah, you know, I'm a big believer in the written word and that's will always be where I direct my primary attention. And I think that like a long piece of writing is a, a unique technology that still is our best means of conveying complex and variegated forms of information and stories to a reader. So just to clarify that I'm in the enemy camp here. But I think there's all kinds of limitations to the written word, too, when you're talking about that. And, you know, there's a reason that I would say, you know, we've gone through the century of the image, right, where photographs and video had claim to special fidelity and special truth values. And now we are exiting that era. Now that we have extremely advanced Photoshop and deepfake abilities, we are no longer in a position where an audience can rely on a video or an image to tell you what is really happening. Did this protest really occur? Did Trump really say that? And so it kind of kicks photos and video back to the position of text, where text is not inherently true or false either. It depends on all these other contextual issues. Where is it published? What are the publishing standards? So I think, you know, VR is obviously in that space too, where it doesn't have a special claim to truth. you know, anymore, if it ever did, in fact. I know that, you know, there were claims when VR first appeared and when, like, when the New York Times started doing this 360 daily project. Did I have the name right, Sam? Was it 360? Daily 360, yeah. Daily 360, yeah. I think there was this idea, and maybe it was just subtext, maybe it wasn't an actual claim, that you could really be in this space. And obviously, those claims are always contingent. Who's taking you there? Who has access to this space? What aren't we seeing? What's in some other space? You know, 360 degrees is not the whole story. So I think it's interesting to be making this film at a time when it feels like virtual reality is sort of maturing beyond making these special truth claims, just as image and video had to mature beyond. And now we're kind of seeing like, well, it depends on the breadth, the quality of the evidence, who's making this project, who's participating in it. So I think that's exciting. And I think Sam can probably speak more eloquently to some of these potentials than I can. But it was really exciting for me to be a part of this project, in part because it feels like you know, just based on watching Sam's work and now since working on this project, seeing a lot of other work in this space, the ways in which it might be maturing as a medium to think through some of these problems that other storytelling mediums have also had to encounter.

[00:50:11.822] Sam Wolson: Yeah, I've listened to your podcast before, so I should have known this question was coming and thought of a really nice answer, which I have not. But I feel like I also don't really know exactly how to answer this because I do spend a lot of time thinking about and reading and researching the future of these immersive tools, let's say, but I don't know how to think about the future because I see a lot of different futures. And, you know, if we're talking about like the ultimate expression of what these things do, I think I feel very limited in some ways by previous ideas of, you know, let's say like popular media or the, I feel like people ultimately are trying to like recreate the matrix or recreate just other simulations that we can live in. And this is the ultimate expression of this. But first of all, I don't really want to live in that world. Although I feel like that's where everything is driving towards. And I don't know what the other expressions of the medium are because there's not really a lot of space for people to funding or ways to explore things outside of this main idea that it feels like we're all driving towards right now, which is just so, you know, I feel like I'm really scared about the future of VR and how it's going to spaces between privacy issues, between not really understanding what it means to grow up, let's say in 10 years living with augmented reality glasses on your head all the time, you know, or brain computer interface, you know, I mean, I see the potential. I'm excited about the potential. I'm also really, really cautious and scared. And I hope that ultimately it just It's just another tool, you know, and I think ultimately I hope it's a tool that brings more peace and love to humanity, but I'm not, not optimistic about that.

[00:51:58.007] Kent Bye: Yeah. As I hear each of your answers, you know, what I'm reminded of is that there's a thought sometimes when a new medium comes along that this new medium is going to completely eradicate all the other previous mediums. And that has never actually happened. It's in fact, the mediums tend to transcend the limitations of previous mediums, but also include all the other affordances of those previous mediums. And I think you go back to writing, that's like the core of all the other mediums in terms of you start with a script or start with an idea, start with the intention. And so I feel like no matter what the final output is, that you kind of have all these different mediums working together. And that's what I find so interesting about it is that blending in together game design with writing and narrative design and web design and cinematic storytelling from film, as well as architecture and theater and other ways of embodiment. And you're kind of mashing all of these things together and trying to figure out what's new. And for me, what's new is this aspect of presence and embodied presence, emotional presence, the sense of mental and social presence, as well as active presence. all kind of mashed together. That's at least how I think about it. But as you're thinking about the writing, the writing's all still there in all these other media.

[00:53:09.535] Sam Wolson: I agree with you. I just, I think the way that this technology is being developed right now, or at least pitched to the general public, it's not that. Like, I'm also excited about those things, but essentially what it appears to me that people are trying to develop is more or less like a replacement for the TV on your wall, a replacement for your computer, a replacement for having to meet people in person, a replacement for travel, you know, because it's sort of this mediator between everything that we experience and our cognition, that seems to be the one narrative of the future of VR. But I agree with you that those things that you mentioned are extremely exciting. And also the reason that I love working in this space in terms of the collaboration and the sort of cross interdisciplinary thing that you can do, which is really, really unique to VR in a way that I don't see in other spaces that I've worked in.

[00:54:02.184] Kent Bye: Awesome. Is there, is there anything else that's left inside that you'd like to say to the immersive community?

[00:54:07.428] Ben Mauk: I will say that something that I didn't know existed that we used in this film was this ambisonic audio. And this is probably quite familiar to your listeners, but for me, it was like our composer and sound designer, John Bernsen worked extremely hard for this. And it like, it felt like even people who were anticipating the film were not ready or were not aware of this element of it and I remember like we had several drafts of the film where you know that we started putting in the audio pretty late in the process and it like suddenly made it into a movie for me when it was you know it was like really cool to see these spaces but having the audio kind of surrounding me and having it sound like I was in you know because it It is an immersive film, but it's also animated. And my reality is not animated. So when I'm in these spaces, I still know that they're creations. But with the audio, it's not quite the case. The audio does kind of have the ability to trick my brain. And so having this being a part of these spaces was really Yeah, it created a kind of visceral shiver to be in this detention cell and to have it sound like I was in a cell. And that was something cool. I didn't really think of virtual reality as extending into sound. And that was something that was really remarkable to me on this project.

[00:55:29.728] Sam Wolson: Yeah, and I'll just say that, you know, despite my nihilistic concerns about this space, which I find myself in, I am so appreciative for this community, because I feel like it's also so collaborative and open. And there is this incredible sense of community and people helping each other. And so I really appreciate that about this space. And I hope that that continues.

[00:55:51.038] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, Sam and Ben, I just wanted to thank you for going on this journey of not only making the article, but also the immersive VR piece. And yeah, just, I think overall really powerful story and one that I think needs to be told and needs to be seen. So thanks for doing all the work to make it happen. And thanks for coming onto the podcast to help tell your story for the rest of the community. So thank you.

[00:56:12.823] Ben Mauk: Thank you. Yeah. Thanks.

[00:56:16.458] Kent Bye: So that was Ben Mock. He's a writer and journalist for a print magazine, contributor to the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, London Review of Books, Harper's Magazine. And he focuses mainly on the topics of asylum, migrant communities, and borderlands, focusing on themes of citizenship and belonging. As well as the other co-director of Re-Educated, Sam Wilson, who is an immersive documentary director on humanitarian or environmental issues. So, I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, for me, I really wanted to go back and rewatch the documentary and read through a New Yorker article and seeing how they're taking different components of this immersive 360 video and integrate it into a 2d spatial representation that is able to provide this vignette as you're reading this 7,000 plus word article and as you read through it There's these different chapters and as you have the different chapter breakups you have the spatialization of what you get through the immersive 360 video documentary and The 360 video is stereoscopic and you don't have a sixth degree of freedom, but you are using a 3DOF to give you the sense that you don't have a lot of freedom of agency that is mimicking a lot of what they were trying to convey, what it was like for a lot of these prisoners to not actually have any agency at all as they were in one of these extrajudicial detention camps within Shenzhen. So again, the experience as I was looking at all these mediums, I personally watched the 360 video first, just to get a sense of what the direct experience of these prisoners were. That gave me a lot of context that as I was reading the article, I knew this arc of a story. I knew this proxy embodied experience of Being in a spatial context of some of these different situations, you know Just being in the prisoners cell that only had like eight beds, but there's like 15 people sleeping there So there's two people per bed some people are sleeping on the floor to see all the different routines and the police coming in and moving into the classroom that had like 80 people in it and then you go outside with everybody squatting down with bags over their heads and with 400 people that are in that situation with around 80 different police officers there as well. And so you get these different moments. And again, this is three different oral history testimonies. And so we mentioned forensic architecture. And so these oral history testimonies are not necessarily like up to the level that you would present in a court of law. But the whole intention of this piece is not to produce a form of forensic evidence, but to capture the emotional and direct phenomenological experiences of these three detainees, which was quite rare to have three people from the same extrajudicial detention camp in Xinjiang that would be able to cooperate each other's stories so that you get kind of a unique ability to tell a uniform story. So as you go through it, you think it's just like one person's experience, but it's actually like three different people that are meshed together. It's not actually very clear. The first time that I watched it wasn't until I heard that in the interview. And then read the article and the article it makes a lot clearer who's saying what and you can piece together different fragments from the 360 video from the three main protagonists. Actually in the article there's a lot of other characters that are being covered and so is able to dig into a lot more of the broader political context that is happening here with China. What they say they're doing versus what the reports are coming from both these independent auditors from around the world as well as getting direct testimonies from a lot of these former prisoners within these detention camps. So It digs into a lot more details as to what's happening with bringing in Han population within these autonomous regions and having people just go into people's homes and trying to culturally indoctrinate them and take away some of these Muslim practices. Essentially sounds like just neo-colonial and capitalist project to assimilate the region. Again, I just want to read this section from Human Rights Watch that says, the government in China continue to implement far-reaching policies that are severely restricting the freedoms of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and those from other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang, which threaten to erase the religious and cultural identities. So again, the differences between what you get from watching the 360 video is a lot more of the emotional story and having a deeper sense of the spatial context of what the arc of these different characters are. And when you read the written form, it is able to go into a lot more details that you can't get into when you have just the VR. The VR is so much more of what is the spatial context and the shared spatial context. And through that shared spatial context, they were able to meld together these three different narratives and seamlessly was able to do that because this was the shared spatial journey that you're being taken on within the arc of this story. But there's a lot of these other dimensions of the story that don't have that spatial dimensionality to it. And it's better left to the affordances of the written text and journalism to cover some of these other broader contexts for this story. So they're just trying to convey the despair and isolation as well as tell a story that's true to the subjective experiences. And I think that the affordances of the VR medium were able to really give you that. Like I said at the top, if you were able to just watch the 2D version of the video, it didn't impact me as emotionally. But when I started to get into the more specialized context with these frame by frame cell drawings that were able to give me the sense of being in these different places, but I was able to connect more to some of the different emotional beats when I was watching it in the immersive VR version. I started to watch the 2D version, but I was like, wait, I need to really be immersed to really get the full experience of this. Cause I had seen it back in 2021 and then read the article and did the interview, but it's been a while since I've actually watched it again. And I wanted to just go through and really feel what the medium of VR was able to do, because it does, I think, give you this different emotional arc that gave me a lot more deeper context as I was reading through how this came about and what was the aftermath. And so you get more of the, what was leading up to it. And also just this translation of the 360 video into these different interactive components. There were five different parts of chapter one, the new frontier chapter two, becoming family. Chapter 3 re-educated chapter 4 the misfortune and then chapter 5 graduated so in the beginning of for those different chapters you had these spatialized translations of footage that was taken from the 360 video You're reading text and having these breaks where you have this little vignette that's animated and giving you this deeper spatial context that helps for me at least grounding some of these different stories into Some sense of what it was like for each of these different prisoners So again, this piece picked up a Peabody that was just announced this past week, and then last year won an Emmy for Outstanding Interactive Media winner of the New Approaches category of the News and Documentary Emmy for 2022. So, that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue bringing you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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