#891 Sundance: Al Jazeera Uses VR & AR to Explore Life After Incarceration in ‘Still Here’

Al Jazeera Contrast is an immersive storytelling and media innovation studio that is interested in telling the stories of the Global South and communities of color. They premiered a multi-media experience at Sundance New Frontier called Still Here that explores the complex dynamics of mass incarceration, erasure, and gentrification in Harlem.

Still Here featured a three-part, room-scale, AR tablet experience that showed the evolution of gentrification in Harlem, a photo gallery installation featuring members of the Women’s Prison Association advocacy group, and a virtual reality experience focusing on the plight of formerly-incarcerated women of color. The VR experience juxtaposed a dramatized virtual reality, 360-degree video showing the archetypal experiences of women returning to life after experiencing mass incarceration, and then was intercut with a room-scale, volumetric photogrammetry scan of 3 different sections of an apartment that each had a couple of objects that provided statistics and infographics providing more context to the collective experience of prison.

I had a chance to unpack this experience with one of the lead artists, producer, VR experience team, collaborators from the Women’s Prison Association, and the lead actress from the 360-video narrative.

  • Zahra Rasool: Head of Al Jazeera Contrast, one of the lead artists on Still Here.
  • Viktorija Mickute: Senior producer at Al Jazeera Contrast, creative director and producer of Still Here.
  • Maria Fernanda Lauret: Post production of VR narrative portion.
  • Mo Caicedo: Hey Mister, created the VR experience with photogrammetry interactivity.
  • Tamanika: Women’s Prison Association & collaborator on in Still Here.
  • Sister Eli: Women’s Prison Association & collaborator on Still Here.
  • Le’Asha Julius: Actress in Still Here.

This experience did a great job of being able to connect the dots between the collective and universal experience of mass incarceration, but grounded within the personalized dramatization and narrative. While it’s impossible for virtual reality to communicate the full trauma of mass incarceration, alienation, and gentrification, it’s able to start to capture the real-life pains and struggles that these women face after being incarcerated. Being able to experience Still Here provided me with enough context to be able to dive deeper into the experiences of Tamanika and Sister Eli, and for the medium of virtual reality to be able to share the essence of each other their own stories. They were at the photo gallery speaking to attendees during the Sundance screenings of Still Here at the New Frontier at the Ray, and they shared their experiences of VR and the audience reactions. I also had a chance to explore the experiential design process, and continued exploration into immersive storytelling that is happening at Al Jazeera Contrast.


Here’s a video with more context about the 25-minute VR portion of Still Here

Here’s a video with more context about the 18-minute AR portion of Still Here

This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

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. So continuing on in my series of looking at different experiences from Sundance 2020, both the immersive storytelling innovations, technical innovations, but also the experiential design process from the creators. So in today's episode, I'm going to be looking at Still Here, which was a production from Al Jazeera Contrast. And they had actually a number of different aspects to this experience. Overall, they're covering two major topics. One was the life after prison for women who had been incarcerated. So African American women who were in jail what was their life like afterwards and so they used virtual reality to blend together both a narrative story but also a photogrammetry scene where you're walking around being able to interact with different objects that then are giving you statistics to give you this larger archetypal story rather than just focus on one aspect of an individual story they're trying to go back and forth between the individual and the collective experience of what life is like after incarceration So the other aspect that they were looking at was the story of gentrification. And so they had an augmented reality experience there on a tablet where you're able to see how a specific neighborhood in Harlem changed over many different years and had this narrative on top of that of what it's like to try to get a job as the gentrification is happening within a neighborhood. Then the people that live there, what's it like as they're coming out of prison, trying to get a job within this new gentrification context. And they also had like a photo gallery with women from the Women's Prison Association who their stories were being documented and they were there to answer questions as well. And so this interview is actually with like seven different people from this production, from both the creative side, the technical side, as well as representatives from the Women's Prison Association who collaborated on this project in order to help write the story, as well as one of the actresses who was playing the part of a formerly incarcerated woman. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Zahra, Victoria, Maria, Mo, Tamanika, Sister Eli and Leisha happened on Sunday, January 26th, 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:21.558] Zahra Rasool: Hi, my name is Zahra Rasool and I'm the head of Al Jazeera Contrast and one of the lead artists and still here.

[00:02:27.688] Viktorija Mickute: Hello, my name is Viktoria Metskute and I'm a senior producer at AJ Contrast and I was the creative director and producer of Still Here. So my job in the team is, you know, work on different stories and find ways, best immersive or other ways to tell them.

[00:02:44.097] Maria Fernanda Lauret: Hello, everyone. My name is Maria. I'm from Brazil originally, and I've been with the Contrast team doing the post-production of our documentaries in virtual reality. And I did the 360 video post-production and some of the assets that were included in the VR interactions. I'm still here, and thank you for having me.

[00:03:02.825] Mo Caicedo: Hi, I'm Mo Caicedo, and I own a company called Hey Mister, and we were the vendor that created the virtual reality experience. So we basically took all of the 360 components and put them together and developed the interactivity, the eye gaze functions, and basically just kind of put the whole linear story together in virtual reality.

[00:03:21.490] Tamanika: Hi, my name is Tamanika. I'm a Women's Prison Associates graduate, and I collaborated on Still Here.

[00:03:27.860] Sister Eli: Good morning. My name is Sister Eli. I'm a forensic social worker. I was convicted of hindering prosecution in the second degree, and I'm a Women's Prison Association graduate.

[00:03:40.148] Le’Asha Julius: Hi, I'm Leasha Julius, and I am the actress who played Jasmine.

[00:03:45.072] Kent Bye: So maybe you could give me a bit more context as to your background and your journey into immersive technologies.

[00:03:50.415] Zahra Rasool: Sure, so actually my background is in traditional journalism, investigative journalism. I went to university to study journalism, started in documentary filmmaking, and then was working on my startup for three years. While I was doing that, I was approached by Riot a couple of years back, four years back actually now, and they asked me to come on board to be their managing editor. Did that for a little bit, and then joined Al Jazeera to create Al Jazeera Contrast, which is their innovation and storytelling studio.

[00:04:15.467] Viktorija Mickute: So I started also as a journalist. I worked mostly in television. I was a foreign news editor back home, which is Lithuania. I also hosted TV shows there. But finally, I wanted to find different ways to tell stories, and I was always interested in documentary filmmaking. I did that as well. So I found the immersive storytelling something that was moving for me, like something that I thought it's impactful, and I wanted to experiment with that space. That's how I ended up in AJ Contrast, and this is, you know, where we're trying to look for those ways, how to tell those stories in more interesting ways, different ways and to attract the audience.

[00:04:52.225] Maria Fernanda Lauret: So my background is actually in communications and advertising. Back in Brazil I was working in this field and then I moved to the US in 2014. I started working as an editor for Riot as well and once they started focusing more in 360 documentaries I focused more in this kind of post-production and that's how I ended up also working for Contrast.

[00:05:13.660] Mo Caicedo: So I started Hey Mister about five years ago. And prior to that, I come from a visual effects and motion graphics background. So I freelanced around Manhattan for a long time and worked at the top shops and basically created a creative skill set, which I then leveraged into creating my own business called Hey Mister. And we've been doing traditionally motion graphics and visual effects, but lately there's been these opportunities emerging with augmented reality, virtual reality, all the spatial computing stuff. And it's been really exciting to kind of be at the forefront of that in New York.

[00:05:46.962] Le’Asha Julius: I got my degree in acting at SUNY Purchase College eight years ago, and during those eight years, I spent more time developing music. I'm a rapper, and I was hired in an HBO show as a rapper who acts, and Naima Ramos Chapman was directing that particular episode of that HBO show, and she also directed the 360 portion of this film, and she recommended me, and I auditioned, and that's how I ended up here.

[00:06:17.940] Sister Eli: So this project actually started off as a workshop that we attended in our women's leadership and media project. And Zahra came and presented the technology to us. And then we did interviews surrounding information that she wanted to get for a project about a woman coming home from jail and being in her home that she left that's gentrified and has changed. So overcoming the obstacles of re-entering society and being in a new, basically a new society, a new community.

[00:06:57.396] Tamanika: Also, like Sister Eli started with the workshop and Zara gave us this script and we was going over things that were said and things that were said in prison and we just kind of, we worded a lot of things, this would happen, that wouldn't happen and I don't know, next thing I know I'm in Sundance.

[00:07:17.999] Kent Bye: So maybe you could sort of describe a little bit about this project and how it came about, and then describe this collaboration that came about here.

[00:07:26.048] Zahra Rasool: Sure. So I'll take the first part of that, just describing how the project came about. I think Victoria will do a better job of explaining the project more technically. So, you know, we wanted to do a story about gentrification because that's a topic that young people all around the world really care about internationally. But as we were investigating gentrification in the American context, we saw what really set it apart was its link to incarceration. And that was really, really interesting. We thought it was an important story, a really powerful one to talk about. We couldn't just touch upon incarceration. We actually had to dive into that as a topic. And so we ended up creating Still Here. That is a story about incarceration and gentrification and the links between those two. And our protagonist is a female because we wanted to make sure that when we're telling stories, we're also making sure we're talking about how things impact women. Most often, we see that men are centered in stories about especially incarceration. So we created this project with a female protagonist.

[00:08:21.347] Kent Bye: maybe you can set a broader context for how this larger collaboration came about?

[00:08:25.450] Viktorija Mickute: You mean with the Women's Prison Association? So whatever work we do, we want to collaborate with the community and we want to collaborate with the people who we call experts on their own stories and because it's their story, it's not ours. So we found Women's Prison Association and they wanted to collaborate us on this big adventure as well and big ambitious project. And that's how it came to be and we're so happy that after this more than a year and a half, we have Dominika and Alain with us in this project because it also was very important for us while we were presenting this project in Sundance for people to be able to talk to them and to learn more about their journeys and to learn more about their activism as well. and what changes they want to find in the criminal justice system in the U.S. So, you know, we did journalism part of it and they're also talking to people and advocating for what they want to say to the world.

[00:09:17.373] Kent Bye: And the interesting thing about this piece is that now that I've seen it, I've got this like embodied experience of a lot of things that you've gone through that have been maybe sort of tried to be boiled down to the essence and shown in this piece. So maybe let's start at the end and work backwards of the piece and sort of like, just talk about the experience of you watching this piece and maybe what do you identify with in this piece that has come out called Still Here?

[00:09:46.447] Tamanika: I think I identify with everything in this piece. There's a scene where Jasmine is hugging her son when she first comes home, and I remember standing on 125th, hugging my son when I first came home. So that was really emotional for me. I can remember the day like it was yesterday. I remember talking about the food, the green food, the green hot dogs. I remember having to use the bathroom and I couldn't get tissue. And I was being told to use a rag. Just a lot of emotion. I remember coming home and there was a lot of work to be done and a lot was put on my back. And I just came home, what do you expect me to do? But I still had to do it. So, you know, the job had to be done. I think everything in this piece is me. I did a few years in prison. I came home. I had to fight to get my kids back. I was homeless when I came home. I had to find a place to stay. I didn't know where I was going to get money. I had to look for a job. So just everything.

[00:10:38.909] Sister Eli: Just everything. I think the part of stillhood that most talks to me is when Jasmine's going into the coffee shop looking for a job and the judgment that she received by the coffee shop owner and her response to that, the anger. Because I find myself often feeling judged and stereotyped and I'm always so angry all the time. Like I'm in therapy and even like one day it's like, okay, you're okay. The next day you're angry again because it's constantly you're being judged and being told that you can't do this, you can't do this. and you have to make a way, especially as a mother. You have to support yourself, you have to support your child, and the struggle makes you feel overwhelmed. And then the fact that, I mean, everyone seems to be struggling now in this economy, but that extra barrier to get over finding a job is like, I have my CNA certificate. I can't do direct service on probation. I cannot work with patients. So now I have to find something else to do which brought me to social work so I can help others in my situation to help hopefully them get like a different sentence or just an alternative to incarceration because you have to understand the backstory behind someone, like why this decision was made and what's going on in their life and support them before you incarcerate them and break up a family.

[00:12:02.567] Tamanika: It's like when a judge sentences you. You think you're going to do your time and it's over, but it's not. You come home, you're on parole. You're still doing time. It's a counting game. You're always counting. And even when you're off parole, you're still doing the sentence. It feels like it never ends. You're a convicted felon and that goes nowhere.

[00:12:19.379] Viktorija Mickute: I just wanted to give a little bit of context about what Tomanika said, that she felt so connected to the things that were said in the piece, because we actually wrote it together. And I think that's also very important to mention. Like, I remember sitting in Starbucks with Tomanika and, you know, crafting the script together for audio excerpts for other parts of the stories. So, you know, they not only told us the stories, their experience, but they actually helped us put that on paper themselves. And that is really very important.

[00:12:49.214] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, we're here at Sundance and you're often, you know, standing outside, there's like a photo gallery. And so people are seeing this experience and they're coming out. What's it been like for you to be able to interact with people that are able to have this experience where they're able to have an experience of so much of what you've gone through? I can imagine that it was like almost being in exile or experiences that are hard to describe. So I'm just curious what that's been like to be able to talk to people after they've gone through this experience.

[00:13:17.392] Tamanika: Well first let me say it's funny to me when I see them looking at my picture on the wall and they're looking at me like, wait is that her? And then I walk over and introduce myself. That's just so funny to me. To see people so emotional about the piece, it really touches me because honestly I didn't think anybody cared. And to see that people do care, that just feels so good.

[00:13:40.048] Sister Eli: I find it very emotional because people are now asking, what can they do? And I'm like, well, where are you from? See if I have any background on what's going on in their state. But the one thing I tell them is follow us on Twitter, as well as just see what's going on because the mass incarceration is just not in New York. It's nationwide in the United States. and there's a lot of movement going on right now with trying to stop the mass incarceration because it's impacting whole communities. It's not just the person that's doing the sentence, it's actually the whole family that's impacted, as well as the community, because you're losing people that could work, you're losing caregivers, the children are traumatized, they're acting out in school because they miss their mom, their dad, so it really is impacting whole communities.

[00:14:30.628] Kent Bye: And your role is to try to get as much of this story as you can with the writing and the script, but you're also trying to embody these experiences. And so I'm wondering if you could kind of elaborate a little bit of your collaboration with them to what you learned in this process of kind of diving into this world and how you were trying to express that through your embodied acting.

[00:14:52.705] Le’Asha Julius: Well, this is the first time that I have ever done a virtual reality film. And when I read the script, the first thing that I thought was this is very innovative. You know, these things aren't done like this ever. So I was really excited to be a part of something like this. and the regular preparation research that all actors do. Stepping on set with a 360 camera and working like that where the director has to hide and you really just have to go off of your own instincts as an actor to really tell the story because the director isn't there to give you notes immediately. The director just has to watch from some other room and give you notes like that. So that part was really difficult. But stepping into this world, it was really heady for me. It was very intellectual. And I had to really work with our women here who have experiences, because I've never experienced this. I have to live vicariously through them to make it real for me. They were right there if I had any questions, right there to answer, tell the stories. First of all, it's a blessing for a project like this to be in Sundance, because here we are in Utah. And this particular story is telling the story of black women. And here we are in the middle of no black people and who may not know that something like this is happening, you know, just because they're separated from it. And I think it's really important for this story to be told everywhere, because I was able to have the research right there for me. If I had any questions, they were there. And the rest of the world, the nation, they don't have black people here in Utah to tell their experience. And so for me, I think that is a big blessing of a project like this being in Sundance. And I'm really happy to be a part of it and help tell the story. Because I don't have this story, but I do have women in my family who I didn't know how to talk to. I didn't know what questions to ask. I didn't know what they were going through until I did this project. And then I was able to go home and have a real conversation. And this project is for people to have real conversations.

[00:17:17.310] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I wanted to unravel this more of the process, but also like a deeper context, because Al Jazeera, my conception of it is that it's a Middle Eastern news. And it's sort of surprising to see that there's a project like this. So maybe you could give a little bit more context as to like, how this project came about within the context of Al Jazeera.

[00:17:37.530] Zahra Rasool: Sure. So, you know, just to give a bit of context about Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera is actually one of the biggest international news companies in the world. You know, we are known for doing hard journalism, telling stories specifically about the global south and communities of color. I think that is the very specific identity of Al Jazeera. So, Al Jazeera doing a project like this is right down its alley. You know, they've been in America for a really long time through Al Jazeera International, which is Al Jazeera English. So we've been covering a lot of these kind of stories. I think in the immersive space, Al Jazeera is fairly new. Al Jazeera Contrast was only started three years ago. So I'm really excited that, you know, a company like that is not just supporting the storytelling, but is also investing in the innovative forms of telling these stories.

[00:18:22.080] Kent Bye: And where does this piece going to go after this? Like, I know there's a number of people doing these kind of location-based entertainment, but is there like a plan for engagement or what happens to this experience after Sundance?

[00:18:31.910] Zahra Rasool: So currently we have, you know, we've envisioned a three-tier strategy for this. The first is the film festivals because that's where people get a glimpse of it and start talking about it. I think that is the least complicated part of the distribution. They have a lot of festival curators here, so I think it will automatically be picked up for festivals, other festivals. The second tier of the strategies is museums. So making sure that we can get it into some museums around the country where it would stay for a period of time that people could go and watch it at their convenience. And the third and the most important tier of our strategy, which we're still trying to figure out, is how do we get it to communities that would not actually come to a festival or an exhibition space? Those are the people that actually need to see this. They need to know that this kind of storytelling actually exists, that people care about them. And so we've been having conversations with a couple of different organizations that are helping us tackle that part of the impact distribution. And also, you know, churches, community organizations, where we can access those people more easily.

[00:19:32.223] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, one of the interesting things about this piece in particular is the way that it's set up with a photo gallery that has lots of photos to be able to dive into different stories. You have an augmented reality tablet experience that as people are waiting, they can kind of pop in and out and do different chapters. And then there's the whole virtual reality experience. And so there's sort of many tiers, even within the experience itself. And so let's dive in a little bit into the augmented reality aspect of this experience, maybe kind of talk a bit about what you were trying to do with that.

[00:20:00.745] Viktorija Mickute: Yes, so Augmented Reality part of the story was developed by a company, PlayHybrid, and what we wanted to do with that, we wanted to focus more on gentrification side of the story, while virtual reality dives more into re-entry process and incarceration. So how we decided to do it, we had an audio story which was written, the script was written by Carvel Wallace, and it's an audio story accompanied by augmented reality, with augmented reality. So augmented reality doesn't show exactly what you're hearing, but actually shows what Jasmine could have seen in her mind, right? So while she has these interactions in the streets, we see the images that go through her mind, something that she's seen on the media, something that she's seen, the visuals that are upon the community, that are shared by a lot of people. And yeah, that's the story. And we wanted people to be able to walk around the space, to create this Harlem experience, so they feel like they're in Harlem, no matter where they are. We are now in Utah, but those people can feel like they're walking in Harlem streets. And, you know, we tried to do it as authentic as possible, even those computer-generated images. We created the visuals with the developers and then went back to the community, back to Harlem, asking people whether they feel connected to those images, whether it feels authentic for them. And, you know, we did that research as well in this way. And we wanted to show the changes that Harlem has gone through in terms of gentrification, how it's been changed. That's why we did also sort of historical context presented there as well.

[00:21:34.185] Kent Bye: So yeah, maybe you could talk a bit about like what you were working on specifically on this experience.

[00:21:39.267] Maria Fernanda Lauret: Yeah, I think one of the biggest challenges for me as post-production was to use so many different types of technology to cover such nuanced story. And also, you know, incarceration and gentrification were kind of new topics to me. And so to create soundscape for the audio triggers, for example, was quite challenging because, you know, my understanding of incarceration is pretty much what I see on TV or online or on interviews, but that doesn't mean that it sounds authentic, you know, enough to be part of this project. So it was very important for us to work together with the women from WPA to get it as close as possible to how they would feel like it sounds really authentic and people would feel how they felt, you know, while they were incarcerated.

[00:22:27.817] Kent Bye: So the actual experience of the virtual reality experience, there's an augmented reality component to this as well as a virtual reality component. So you're using 360 video and then you're going into this photogrammetry room scale experience and going around and clicking on objects. And as you click on those objects, you're getting these infographics. you're getting these statistics that are telling like this larger story, but you're able to do that within the context of someone's home. So you're really trying to orient the story to these objects that are related to different experiences in the home. So maybe you could talk about this fusion of the 360 video with the photogrammetry and this interaction that you have to be able to tell this story in a little bit more spatial way.

[00:23:06.575] Mo Caicedo: Sure. Yeah. So when we first got approached with the project, we saw that the photogrammetry mesh and we were tasked with how can we fuse this with 360 video. And I've seen experiences like that done before, but never with a chair. So it was an interesting challenge to be able to physically map a chair into position and kind of move the room around it. So we ended up doing like various zones. And I like to think of it like we created augmented reality inside of virtual reality. You know? Because as these eye-gazing interactions happen, it's kind of like a telling, like a future-forward technique that I feel is going to happen in the next five to ten years, maybe even sooner.

[00:23:45.372] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. Cause you're, you have the agency as a viewer to be able to stand up and explore what ends up being a photogrammetry scan of this home. And then you're seeing the three 60 video, which is then a dramatic enactment of different scenes within that. But you're allowing them to kind of have some choice. Uh, so maybe you talk about the design decision to be able to allow people to kind of flip in and out of the three 60 video and being able to engage with these different objects.

[00:24:10.745] Mo Caicedo: Yeah, so we ended up creating a tech system that basically, as soon as you stand up, and you select the first object or look at it, it enables the I'll call it augmented reality, but it's like a data that comes up. And then as soon as that happens, the chair is activated, so you can sit back down. So there's usually two objects per zone. But even if you just find one object, you can sit back down and get into the next 360 video. we were able to use it as like a chapter system. Kind of like use the photogrammetry and like the different parts of the apartment as a chapter system that ended up telling the full story of Jasmine and her place.

[00:24:47.185] Viktorija Mickute: And the statistics are very important in a way that it gives context before every 360 video. So we created these zones and then we gave context to prepare the viewer to watch these 360 videos that are gonna come next.

[00:24:59.500] Kent Bye: And I think another striking thing about this experience was that it was going from the individual stories into the global stories and kind of going back and forth and showing how one person's experience was actually like statistically a lot of people's experience. And I felt like that was really effective of trying to tell a larger story, even around like toilet paper or how much the food costs or the number of mothers that were in prison. And so I think that's different or new in a way that I felt like to be able to kind of walk around and discover these statistics, but it was already within the context of the story that helped me be like, this isn't just this person's experience. This is something that is everybody's experience. So I'm curious to hear a little bit more about that process of to trying to like boil things down into a narrative, but also to look at the more numbers and abstractions of statistics to show that this was a larger pattern.

[00:25:49.844] Zahra Rasool: The reason we chose to tell it in VR was because, you know, I think along with being immersive, there is this, in VR, you think that, okay, you can take all of these actions, you can do all of these things, you can move around, but it's still really limited, you know. The technology decides how much of it you can do. It's not, you can do anything in there, move around as much as you can. That sort of, I think, theoretically fits really well into the idea of being incarcerated or the experience of being incarcerated, wherein you have very limited freedom when you're jailed or in prison. Your freedom's limited and you get sort of that experience within the VR where you can move around, but only up to a certain extent. Your freedom's kind of limited. So we're trying to replicate that feeling in this space as well. With regards to the statistics, like the audio triggers, and it's exactly as you mentioned, you know, we have the videos that give you a very personal experience because you can only connect to somebody through a personal story. So we do that through the character of Jasmine, but then after we take you out of that video, we're telling you, well, but it's not just her. you know, there are millions others that are having this experience and that statistic sort of sets the ground for you to understand that idea.

[00:26:57.853] Kent Bye: Yeah, there was a really moving part of the piece that was around motherhood and the number of women that are pregnant or have children at home and to just almost like rip out these connections. I'm just curious if you could talk about what you reacted to when you saw that in the piece and what that sort of brought up in your own memories of being separated from your children.

[00:27:19.670] Tamanika: Well, for me, when I was incarcerated, I have four children, so when I was incarcerated, three of my children went into foster care. I remember being at the precinct and the detective telling my son that I would be right back, and I never came back. My son was seven at the time, and to him, that was, you killed my mother, because I never came back. And for three months, he thought I was dead. So it took three months before the judge ordered a phone call just for me to talk to him. And even when he got on the phone with me, he's like, you're not my mother. And I had to sing to him a song that I used to sing to them when they was little. And he caught on and he started singing with me for him to realize that I was his mother and that I was alive. So that right there just touched me so much. I remember being incarcerated and watching women pregnant, walking around and hungry, didn't have enough to eat. Women having babies or back then they was getting shackled to the bed while they was having a baby and that just was crazy Some women could bring your baby into prison with you and some can't and the separation was just unbearable You know, yeah

[00:28:29.113] Kent Bye: Yeah, and another part of the employment, as the drama was playing out, the thing that was striking to me was that there may be a lot of context that was leading up to whatever the judgment was to go to prison, but yet once that conviction comes, then that is almost like a taboo that you don't dive into or it put you into this further exile, the social exile, where there's not really a good way to maybe get more background or context or story. And so I guess maybe talk about that, your own experience, since you said you identified with that part, but then what's the sort of antidote to, is it to watch stories like this and to try to cultivate a deeper culture for people to be a little bit more empathetic to giving someone more of an opportunity rather than just, you know, cutting people off.

[00:29:14.300] Sister Eli: So I was actually an office manager, as a side job, at an entertainment company called King Bishops, and I offered life skills to men there, including my husband, who was an artist. Knowing them, like the black and white of the law, when a crime occurred, put me in a very unique situation where they were like, we think you know more about what happened at this party because it was a party and we want you to testify and I was five months pregnant when they came to me and I didn't have any information I was in jail for four days and the only thing in my head was I don't want my baby ripped from my arms like how they did Jasmine in the movie I don't want to have my baby here In prison, again, like Tamanika said, I was starving. Like there was not enough food and I was like, I can't go back to prison. So I took a plea deal, which a lot of people do. A lot of cases actually do not make it to trial. They plead out because you have to think about your child or you're going to lose your house, you're going to lose your job. Even a lot of times you do because you're in jail for how many days or months before you're able to get back. So even though I would like prisons and jails and detention centers to be totally demolished, right now the big thing that we could do is find alternatives to incarceration. WPA has an alternative to incarceration called Justice Home, where we had a fellow graduate of our advocacy training who was able to keep her job, who was able to stay in touch with her child, who was able to graduate. from school and her life was less disrupted. It was still disrupted, but it was less disrupted. And that's really important, being able to maintain those family ties, being able to still build social and economic and just those family bonds because you're tearing someone away and then you're not giving them no support while they're in jail. You're not giving them no support when they come out of jail and they have to rebuild everything.

[00:31:21.482] Kent Bye: Yeah, the scene when they were in the dining room and you as an actress was pregnant and you have your baby. And for me, that was probably one of the most visceral scenes in the whole piece of having a baby and having it just taken out the door and you're trying to be connected to your baby. I'm just curious if you could talk a bit about that process of hearing those stories and trying to embody that experience of being cut off like that.

[00:31:48.320] Le’Asha Julius: It wasn't easy. It was very difficult. Part of my job as an actor is to tell the truth. And most of the times with actors, we don't have the truth. We have to go find it and embody it to speak about it. So, you know, it took several takes and, you know, I had to prepare in my hotel room before I got on set. But I think what really drove me with this entire project was the simple fact that Leasha, myself, I believe that a big problem in our nation is that we don't talk to each other. The way the film is set up where Jasmine thinks it's only her going through these things and then you find out, like you said earlier with the statistics, it's so many other people, it comes from the simple fact that we don't talk about it. And that for me just drove me really, I was really passionate just about telling this story so that people will talk about it. We're so afraid to ask questions, you know, and it's not just with this one issue of, you know, mass incarceration. There's several issues that, you know, we face as Americans that we just don't talk about. And for me, that was what I was really passionate about, just speaking on it.

[00:33:10.926] Sister Eli: Also, I feel like something else you could do, but piggybacking off of Yasha, is go serve jury duty and ask questions. If you have, like, a doubt in your mind, that's a reasonable doubt, because, like, we just seemed to kill a mockingbird on Broadway, and that's what I could think about was, like, oh my gosh, like, this guy is innocent, and it doesn't matter because you're gonna do group think. and convict this person, or if it's close to the holidays, I don't want to be serving jury duty, I don't want to be away from my family, but you're putting someone away for years, and then to wait 25 years, 39 years, to say, oh, we made a mistake. You can't get that time back.

[00:33:54.276] Kent Bye: Well, I think one of the things that's interesting about the medium of 360 video is that you start to be able to capture different contexts that would maybe be on the editing room floor. In terms of the narrative arc, you're able to set a deeper context. And I think by going to these locations and really able to embody yourself into these scenes, you're able to connect it to the larger story. But just curious how you think about what the medium of 360 video with the interactivity, how you think of that in relation to the larger story and the storytelling, but also the ability to be able to capture these nuanced contexts.

[00:34:31.425] Mo Caicedo: So I think one of the interesting challenges of 360 video is that it's not traditional film. And a lot of traditional directors try to get involved, not realizing that it's actually more theatrical. It's more about a sense of presence. So you have to imagine that the audience is invisible in the room, which kind of totally changes the whole experience. You have to find ways to use sound and visuals to get people's attention, to rotate around. It's an interesting thing because you can look in any direction, so you have to make sure that when you edit, that things are going to flow somehow. Even if someone's turned around, you want to make sure that they're going to face in the right direction, you know, so that poses some interesting challenges.

[00:35:16.473] Maria Fernanda Lauret: And one interesting thing about this specific project is that, you know, the director of the 360 videos, she approached it in a way that she really wanted viewers to be extremely immersed and have a closer look at the situation. And so that made my job more difficult while stitching the footage because it was 3D, it was stereo, and the distortion was quite big. And then this is something that you have to think about while you are directing. But at the same time, I think the results came together nicely and she accomplished what she wanted to convey.

[00:35:52.817] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, I'm curious to hear from each of you what you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality and this type of immersive storytelling might be and what it might be able to enable.

[00:36:06.946] Zahra Rasool: So, you know, I consider myself a storyteller. The mediums and the technologies, the different formats are a way for me to tell different stories. I don't think every story should be told in VR or AR or, you know, that tech, but I think when the stories are actually, when the story and the medium really mix, I think you get something that's so much more incredibly powerful. You know, we could have told the story in linear, we could have told the story in just photographs, but I think seeing, you know, what it is like for a woman who's coming back after being locked up, in VR is just so much more powerful. So I think when you're able to find the right story that fits the medium, it amplifies the impact of the story.

[00:36:46.464] Tamanika: I don't know, sitting in that room, sitting in that chair, it felt like I was in that brownstone. And it was just, it was a crazy feeling. I don't know, I'm remembering the scene when they took the baby from you and the way you cried on the floor. To me that just, I was feeling the feeling of every time my kids came to visit me and they had to leave. That's just how I felt every time they had to leave. They're crying and I can't do anything about it, I'm stuck. But you asked me about virtual reality, I'm sorry. I don't know. I was sitting there like I would love to see everything like that. Transformers. I would love to be in there with Optimus Prime going through that. So I don't know. I hope it can get there.

[00:37:28.190] Sister Eli: Yeah, I feel like I want to see movies in virtual reality. I just want it to be a little bit more accessible because I feel like right now they have some stuff in the movies and it's while you're waiting for your movie to start and it's like $16 or $25 for two minutes. And I'm like, OK, but I got to buy popcorn. But being able to turn around and hear what's going on on one side and see what's going on on the other side, that was amazing. And I think that that really brought you in to the story. You may not know that you're able to do that, but since I knew that's what the 360 technology was able to do, there was times when I was looking back, because I knew what she was gonna say, because we helped on the script, but I just wanted to see what was going on behind me. And I think that was also one of the hardest things, because I was on set for one of the days, and I was like, they was like, you have to be quiet. It's not like you could go talk in the corner, because they're... filming the whole entire room so they could stitch it together later. But yeah, that would be like an amazing, immersive experience for any documentary, not even necessarily films. I think to really feel like you're there, and then even like if you can't travel, like we're in Utah now, but if you're coming home from being incarcerated, you're not gonna be able to go to Utah to experience these beautiful mountains. So that would be amazing. At home, staycations.

[00:38:48.214] Le’Asha Julius: Yeah, I definitely see virtual reality in the future. It's definitely going to happen. First off, if you think about it, as far as like the movie industry trying to make some money, I already have to go see it again because I was looking to the left when I want to see what was going on to the right. So immediately I want to go back and see it again and then see it again and see what was behind me. So I definitely know it's going to rise up, you know, and especially with the feeling that the viewer gets to stand there and watch Jasmine cry over the baby. And you can literally do nothing about it. It makes you, when you take off the goggles, you're on fire and you want to do something because you were just standing there watching it. But then you want to see it again first to make sure you saw everything first and then you want to go. But yeah.

[00:39:38.606] Mo Caicedo: So yeah, so virtual reality is an interesting thing, because it's actually a very isolating experience, you know, you're basically blindfolded. And so right now, the way it is, it's not a very social thing. I feel like in the next five to 10 years, maybe even sooner, I feel like it's going to merge with augmented reality. So It's actually going to bring people closer together. I feel like right now everyone's kind of buried in their screens and their phones and their computers. But soon enough, we'll all be wearing a pair of glasses that when we want to be in VR, we'll be in VR. And when we want to be in AR, we'll be in AR. And we'll be able to share thoughts. And if I want to look at Mars, I can be like, hey, Mars. And then we can go into Mars if we want, and then we're in VR. You know, that's really exciting to me, to be able to kind of bring people together and communicate things in that way, I think is really exciting.

[00:40:28.107] Maria Fernanda Lauret: Specifically in the journalism field, I think that immersive technology has a very interesting purpose to bring people to experience things that they would never experience otherwise. But at the same time, it doesn't replace traditional formats. For the journalism, documentaries and articles are still very important and informative. But immersive technology brings attention to topics that people not necessarily are paying attention to. And they start getting more interested and invested in learning more about it.

[00:40:58.057] Viktorija Mickute: I think as a storyteller I share the sentiment with Zara that for me the story is the most important, no matter what kind of technology you choose or what kind of format you choose to tell that story in. But I think what I really appreciate with VR is if you find the right story to tell in VR, Yes, you do isolate the people for those maybe 25 minutes, but they spent those 25 minutes just watching Jasmine's story. They don't do anything else. They don't tweet. They don't do Instagram. They don't scroll. They don't go to the restaurant while they pause something. They're actually there. So, yes, it's difficult to distribute. Yes, it's difficult to make people. Sometimes it's difficult to put them in the headsets. But once we do, we have their 100% attention. And I really appreciate that as a storyteller because sometimes, you know, We create these super powerful stories, but people just get distracted. Our attention span is so short. We have so many things going on around us. So VR allows them to just sit there and that story to sink into you.

[00:41:58.332] Kent Bye: Great. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the immersive community? No? Okay. Well, I just wanted to thank you all for working on this project. It's really moving and I look forward to it getting out into the world to be able to share these stories and you have to see what Al Jazeera has next on this whole new medium. So thank you all for joining me today on the podcast. So thank you.

[00:42:19.839] Zahra Rasool: Thank you so much. Thanks. Thank you. Thanks a lot. Thank you.

[00:42:23.541] Le’Asha Julius: Thank you. Thank you.

[00:42:25.702] Kent Bye: So that was Zahra Rasool. She's the head of Al Jazeera Contrast and one of the lead artists in Still Here. Victoria Mitzgata. She's a senior producer at Al Jazeera Contrast as well as a creative director and producer of Still Here. Maria Fernanda Laurette. She's a part of the post-production of the VR documentary. Mo Quesaido. He's a part of Hey Mister, which created the VR experience and the interactive photogrammetry scenes. Tamanika. She's a part of the Women's Prison Association and a collaborator on Still Here. Sister Eli, she's a forensic social worker and also a graduate of the Women's Person Association, as well as Laisha Julius. She's an actress and rapper who was the lead actress within Still Here. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, this was a very ambitious project, spanning everything from virtual reality to augmented reality and a whole photo gallery and installation that was there. So I think the first thing is that for me as an interviewer, interviewing seven different people at the same time is, it can be a little overwhelming in terms of how do I cover the vastness of all the different aspects of what was happening in this experience. And what was interesting about this interview for me when I really took away in some ways was, you know, as I have a virtual reality experience that goes through the different archetypal dimensions of what it's like after Being in prison for all these years and coming back and trying to reintegrate into society that's an experience in a trauma that I'm never gonna be able to have the full experience of what that's actually like unless I'm actually going through that experience and being a woman of color and Going through all the different aspects of what that is actually like and so a virtual reality experience can only give me almost like a taste of the pain of that trauma, but it's not gonna like give me the trauma of that experience and I That's a little bit of the distinction in talking to Shari Freelo at the very end of my last interview of this whole series of trying to differentiate the difference between, you know, what can virtual reality really do? It's not going to give me an experience of that actual trauma, but it can at least give me a sense of the pain that other people have gone through and the trauma that they've gone through. And in this case, they're trying to boil down what I would say is like this archetypal journey for women who are coming out of prison. And they did that by having a 360 video. So you're watching a very specific story of an individual, but yet as you go in, there's like this opportunity to stand up and sit down and you sit down and you see the 360 degree narrative. And then there's moments when you are put into a photogrammetry scene of this apartment and you're able to walk around and pick up different objects. And as you pick up each of these objects, I think for each photogrammetry scene, there's like two infographics that are giving you a number of different statistics that are trying to tell the larger story. So what, on average, everybody goes through versus what is happening in this one individual's life. And I thought that was a really effective way of trying to show a story, but saying, actually, statistically, this is kind of like what everybody goes through. And so you have the collective picture, but it's sort of grounded within the real experiences of an individual. So it's like trying to connect this collective experience with the individual experience, which I think is actually very difficult to do. I haven't seen a lot of other pieces that try to make this bridge in quite the same way between the collective experience of the archetypal experience and the individual experience. So that I think was very interesting to see how they're able to allow you to walk around in a volumetric space and interact with these objects and then to get Some sort of additional statistic and information and data point but that is connected to the narrative that you've already seen whether that's like how much toilet paper there's available or the number of mothers that are in prison and so there's also some scenes that were happening within the 360 video that were extremely visceral and almost like this symbolic dreamlike imagery, which wouldn't necessarily actually happen, but is trying to capture the different aspects of the pain. So the Alicia, she's the lead actress here in this experience and she's pregnant and she has a baby. The baby falls down to like this little 10 canister. And then a woman who's represented the prison guards comes and swoops up the baby and runs out before the mother even has that chance to hold the baby. And so you get this sense of like this disconnection from your children. And so that was a very powerful moment just to try to symbolically communicate this disconnection that happens between the mothers and their families. And as I was talking to the two women from the Women's Prison Association, Tamanika and Sister Eli, The virtual reality experience was able to set a common ground context I think that would allow me to start to talk about their experiences But to leverage the different stories that are being told within the steel here experience And so it reminds me of one of my mentors Michael Mead he does a lot of storytelling and groups and runs these different men's retreats and I one of the things that he says is that when you listen to a story it's almost like this spiritual acupuncture where you're able to listen to a story and the thing that is the most striking to you in that story is often the thing that is reflecting into like what's really happening in your life and so when you watch a story and you you're really captivated by a particular element then usually that's going to be connected to some aspect that's playing out in your life and so the challenges to try to like connect the dots between what's happening in your life and what you see in the story. And so as I'm talking to Tamanika and sister Eli, I'm asking them, okay, what is the most striking thing to you as you watch this experience? And for Tamanika, she's like saying, okay, as a mother, every time that she would have an opportunity to talk to her children and then have to be separated, there are other scenes later that talk about trying to connect to your family and having to have this distance and not being able to actually touch or engage with them in any deep or meaningful way. But that, both that scene as well as the scene of having the babies taken away really felt to her like this primal experience of, you know, what was like for her to be in a mother and to week after week be separated from her children that way. Even to the point where the police officers have lied to her child saying that, you know, your mother's going to be back. And then the first interaction she has with her child, the child doesn't even believe that she's alive because her son had deducted that if my mom is going to come back and she hasn't come back, then she must be dead. And she has to convince her child that she's not dead. And then for sister Eli, for her, it was more about the challenges of the discrimination that happens when she was trying to find a job and, you know, all the different things that she had to go through. And that was mostly focused on in the augmented reality experience, where there's a whole scenes where there's this woman who's trying to get a job at a coffee shop and just different conversations and interactions that are happening there in the larger context of this gentrification that's been happening. So this project actually had a lot of different parts, a lot of different aspects to it. And for me, it was really just interesting to talk to Zahra Rasool, the head of Al Jazeera contrast and, and why this was an interesting story for Al Jazeera, just because, you know, they're really covering the global South and Africa and also the international news organization. And they're trying to find new ways to be able to tell these stories of women in color within these different regions within the United States and to try to, you know, find new ways of sharing these different experiences. And so. I thought that this was a really great use of virtual reality and augmented reality to be able to cover topics that are not actually very easy to cover, you know, both gentrification as well as life of formerly incarcerated women of color. So it's those different type of aspects where, you know, certain parts of the story that are really contextual. So to actually be embedded within a context gives you a lot more of that information. especially for the gentrification aspect where it's like a portal AR experience into a world where it was like really toon shaded and had this 3D spatial component but it really felt like you were also like in this graphic novel but it was a moving graphic novel with all these different characters and everything. But just to see how they're able to project and do this projection mapping onto the wall for different things that they were talking about, they were able to show the larger shifting of the whole community ecosystem and the changing of these different businesses and going out of business and new gentrified businesses that are opening up. And the other aspect of the 360 video was trying to do this juxtaposition between the 360 video and the photogrammetry and kind of go back and forth three or four times and to really play off of this combination of passively receiving the story and then allowing you to have this embodied experience within the apartment and then to engage and explore around a little bit and to learn a little bit more about the larger statistics and to be able to seamlessly blend these two different things together, where once you're finished walking around, then you sit back down and get into the part of the story. So really seeing how this sense of emotional presence to the 360 video mashed up with both embodied presence, the sense of agency and exploration, as well as the larger statistical reality of this larger archetypal journey. So that's all that I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a list of supported podcasts. And so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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