It’s hard to imagine a more passionate advocate for the use of VR (Virtual Reality) in attempting to achieve social change than Gabo Arora. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more passionate advocate for VR – full stop!
Initially trained as a professional engineer, Arora has not only become an award-winning filmmaker (Cannes, Sheffield, and elsewhere), but is now the first ever Creative Director & Senior Advisor at the United Nations HQ, working with UNICEF. During his humanitarian work in the field, he’s been impressed with the humour and resilience of field workers. His social activism continues at home in New York, where for example, he does voluntary door-to-door engagement, registering people to vote.
In challenging the effectiveness of earlier forms of media exposure in achieving social change, Arora refers to a book published in 1924 by the German Ernst Friedrich called Krieg dem Krieg/War against War. Friedrich hoped that by countering the propaganda of the day of war as an heroic adventure, his graphic photos of death, injury and suffering – the true horror of war – might persuade people not to engage in war in the future.
Did the book stop war? No. Media images don’t work to stop wars. Why? We grow numb to tragedy. In the 1980s, there were events like Live Aid and such. We don’t do that sort of thing anymore… because they’re not as successful as they were then.
Will robots, drones, and their ilk stop future wars?
There were never names of children in the pictures. Now Arora believes storytelling, including names and other involving information, can make the difference. But that in itself is not enough. He outlined some turning points of the use of media in conflicts.
World War 1: photography.
Black Lives Matter: Facebook Live.
Will the next phenomenon be VR?
Why should VR be any different from, or be more effective than, media representations in the past? Arora is convinced that VR gives us the possibility of making ordinary experience extraordinary.
In the past, documentary films were simple presenters of information and accepted by the audience as such. Nowadays, in order to be successful, a doco must tell a story and engage an audience’s emotions. Whereas photographs and television screens remain objects outside of us, from which we can easily disengage, virtual reality, by immersing us completely within the world portrayed, gives us an experience immensely more powerful – and from which it is almost impossible to remain uninvolved.
An illustration of the greater effectiveness of VR can be seen in fundraising. When people in a street were given the opportunity to put on a VR headset and watch a four-minute clip, one in six people ended up donating to the cause – twice the normal rate.
But the question arises of course – was it the VR, or was it the storytelling?
Arora was once told that VR is so powerful that there’s no longer any need for a director and storytelling. The people on the street thought it was the VR, but he does not believe this; the effectiveness of the VR experience was at least partially down to the fact that so much effort went into the storytelling aspect.
The slogan has become “Creating empathy, one person at a time”.
Arora has been encouraged by his bosses at the UN to show how good the work is, but he feels that’s not truthful. He thinks we can be more truthful. He invokes filmmakers like Eric Rohmer and Abbas Kiarostami, whose slow and contemplative films get their points across. VR immerses someone in the experience. Not just showing horrible things, which is ineffective, but creating a story which does engage, gets people involved, then moves them emotionally.
However, VR can be exploited by “the enemy”. The photo of three-year-old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, drowned while fleeing Syria, affected us all around the world. But then ISIS used it as a warning to Syrian people not to flee their country. That is why storytelling with nuance can be much better, more effective, in reaching a goal.
Arora apologised for sounding like an evangelist, but he does believe VR is giving us a wonderful opportunity.
You can see examples of Arora’s VR work for the UN, most of which is based on a 360 degree experience, here.
The Documentary NZ Trust acknowledged the support of ATEED and ARVR Garage in bringing Gabo Arora to New Zealand.