VR For Good: Technology Adds Perspective To Jayisha Patel’s “Notes To My Father”
By: Marjorie Galas
This is a reset. You get to start over.
The masterminds behind Oculus VR spent a great deal of time contemplating what “this is a reset” meant to them. While some may see the virtual reality landscape as the wild west of storytelling; a lawless land where narrative runs amuck, Oculus VR came up with an elevated concept. Why not give a diverse set of storytellers who generally don’t have the means to access the most recent technical innovations a chance to create in this leveled playing ground? This would not only allow audiences to hear stories that generally don’t reach the main stream, it would also elevate VR above the experimental landscapes of gaming and marketing.
Through a generous federal grant and partnership with Reel FX, who provided all post production services, “VR for Good” was born. Filmmakers around the world where encouraged to pitch stories that would bring a diverse array of causes and voices to life. The finalists in this global search were invited to attend a boot camp at the Oculus campus, where they were paired with a mentor, brainstormed best practices for their projects, experienced hands-on demos, received training on VR equipment and created their first 360 VR film.
Jayisha Patel was one of the nine chosen filmmakers to participate in the inaugural Oculus VR for Good boot camp, held August 2016. An independent filmmaker who works with Al Jazeera’s English’s Witness strand and their online platform AJ+, Patel attended the International Film and TV School in Cuba where she studied documentary direction. Focusing on under reported subject matter, she produced and directed several traditional short documentaries, including 2014’s “Un Paraiso (A Paradise)”, which was nominated for awards in the Berlin Intl. Film Festival, Krakow Intl. Film Festival and Cameraimage. For her VR project, she decided to focus on the rural landscapes of India to serve as a backdrop to tell a story about sexual trafficking. During her Oculus VR for Good boot camp, Patel partnered with My Choices Foundation, a NGO working in India to prevent sexual trafficking, and mentor Gabo Arora to explore the use of VR for her short documentary subject.
Shot on location in India, “Notes To My Father” exposes the viewer to the story of Ramadevi. Present by her father to a traditional arranged marriage as a young woman, she was actually sold into sexual trafficking. Through a one-sided conversation Ramadevi has, she exposes the honesty of her feelings during the course of the eleven-minute film, sharing the pain of the situation she loved her father too much to discuss face to face with him. Now a mother herself, she wistfully longs to protect her daughter from the horrors she experienced. While listening to Ramadevi’s story, the viewer is immersed in typical settings of the area: riding a horse-drawn cart across a field, sitting in small hut where a woman is busy making pots of food, or gathering with families as they prepare to watch an outdoor film in the center of town. Some settings are very peaceful: small children chase each other as the viewer stands at the site of an abandoned house. Others are extremely uncomfortable: a group of men stare at the viewer from every direction while on board a crowded train car.
Patel began her project by recording hours of conversation with Ramadevi to fully understand her story and point of view. Patel also recorded conversation with Ramadevi’s father, and her best friend, Nagalakshmi, who also happens to be a trafficking survivor. Patel then transcribed the narrations, spoken in Telugu, into the ultimate script used in the production. To ensure the English narration was read with an inflection that shared the trauma of Ramadevi’s experience, she cast Sneha Jawae, an acid attack survivor.
“It was important for me to have a woman who had gone through her own trauma, who could relate to Ramadevi’s story in some way,” said Patel. “She was able to understand the subtleties and type of inflections of emotion needed for each word.”
Patel decided early on to have images that starkly contrasted with the story that unfolds in the narration. Knowing many individuals who experience “Notes To My Father” would not have an relatable experience to Ramadevi’s, she wanted to take the viewer into Ramadevi’s world; to allow them to hear and understand her inner voice and create empathy towards her. She felt images that related directly to the experiences described would interfere with a personal connection the viewer could develop by listening closely to what was said.
“The intention was to juxtapose the beautiful lush visuals with the unseen, dark reality of her internal life so as to challenge the viewer in a visceral way,” said Patel.
Because Ramadevi, along with her father, is featured in the VR footage at different points (example: she drinks tea with her father under the shade of a majestic tree), Patel had Nagalakshmi join them on the set to help her subjects feel calm and open. The film was shot in a minimalist style to create a deeper emotional impact: The camera remains static in a central spot on each location, allowing the viewer to look into the open environment with little activity to interfere with the words. The editing was also rather straight forward highlighting clean cuts which aimed to enhance tone and the emotional journey of the narrated story.
“Notes To My Father” was first screened, along with the other VR for Good commissioned experiences, at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 2017. It had its official World Premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival in March, 2017. Patel hopes more viewers will have the opportunity to witness “Notes To My Father” at upcoming film festivals and VR salons in the months ahead.
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