The Fight for Fallujah

Affordable virtual reality is finally here for the world to experience, but that doesn’t mean that people have figured out what to do with the technology. Games have been the obvious first use, horror tiles in particular because it’s so easy to scare someone by placing them in a terrifying situation and scaring them with creatures and ghosts lurking around them.

But it turns out that one of the absolute best uses of VR is for documentaries. It may seem strange, but it’s really a brilliant idea if you think about it – what better way is there to connect with the subject matter of a doc than by immersing yourself in their world?

The proliferation of cheap VR cameras and increasing know-how by filmmakers means that they’re just going to get better and better from here. Right now, there are a ton of stunning short documentaries that you can check out for yourself. Most of them are free, even with a device as simple as Google Cardboard. Here’s what you need to check out.

Waves of Grace

Waves of Grace

Available on: Within

This is an up-close look at the ebola crisis from one of its survivors, a Liberian woman named Decontee Davis. She was infected with ebola but lived through it, and she’s now one of the few people that can freely interact with the sick because there’s no chance she can contract it again. It’s a gift and a curse – she can comfort the dying, but there’s not much she can do for most.

It would be a harrowing enough subject to read, but having to stand there and look around as she holds sick and dying children and talks about a country ravaged by the disease…well, it’s a lot to take. The most terrible scenes are set in a graveyard, as people in white hazmat suits deposit dozens of corpses. You stand there, helpless.

Nomads

Nomads

Available on: Gear VR

Actually three short films in one, this app allows you to spend some time with various nomadic tribes around the world. You’ll live with the Maasai tribe in East Africa, a patriarchal society that values its warriors. You’ll hunt fish with the Bajau of Southeast Asia. And finally, you’ll herd with the Mongols of Central Asia.

These are three places you’ll likely never be able to visit in your life and time spent with people you’d never be able to meet. It’s one thing to hear about how indigenous tribes live and another to stand among them and watch it for yourself. Here is where you’ll realize how incredible a tool VR can be to place you in another land. You will honestly feel like you’ve taken a trip to this world and understand these people better than any written word or even a traditional film could accomplish

Clouds Over Sidra

Clouds Over Sidra

Available on: Within, YouTube

I’m convinced that there would be no debate about the Syrian refugee crisis if everyone watched documentaries like The White Helmets and VR docs like Clouds of Sidra, which places you (almost quite literally) in the shoes of someone trapped in an unimaginable situation.

It follows a 12-year-old girl named Sidra who lives in the Za’atari camp in Jordan. This UN-produced documentary does its job of humanizing these people admirably, and the choice of Sidra as the focus is brilliant. She talks about what it’s like to live in a camp as a young girl who wants to learn more about the world and escape the tented city where she currently lives.

6x9

6X9 

Available on: Gear VR

This one is a bit of a cheat, as it’s not a documentary. At least technically. The title refers to the 6 foot by 9 foot cell that prisoners in solitary confinement live in, sometimes for months or even years. The actual cell you find yourself in is a digital creation, but as you look around the room you hear sounds from actual solitary cells. You’re then left alone to figure out what to do with your time, and as you gaze at various things in the room, you hear actual inmates tell you about what life is like on the inside. For example, what it’s like to sit on the cold stainless steel toilet or the importance of a stack of books, which are worth their weight in gold when you’re trapped with nothing but your own brain.

The craziest thing? The whole experience lasts a mere nine minutes, but you start to feel yourself losing your mind by the end of it. It’s inconceivable to imagine actually living like this, and for that, it’s as effective as any documentary can hope to be.

Notes on Blindness

Notes on Blindness

Available on: Gear VR, Within

Another app that’s just as much experience as documentary! This longer version of the Emmy-award winning short film of the same name is an amazing introduction to John M. Hull, an author who published a number of works on the experience of losing his sight.

While I could never say with certainty, this certainly feels like a convincing experience of going blind. I mean, forget Daredevil. Here you are treated with audio diaries from Hull, who was documenting all the ways his ears made up for his waning sight and how the world around him changed as a result of it.

Without sound, he has no world. You’ll sit in a park and watch the world come alive as people walk by, rustle newspapers and talk. The wind makes you see trees that weren’t there a second before. Everything is represented as points of life and each new tape shows a new revelation – whether it’s the impact of a choir, or the crushing terror of being out in the world alone and sightless. It’s beautiful and haunting and wonderful.

Vigils in Paris

Vigils in Paris

Available on: NYTVR, YouTube

Five minutes and twelve seconds. That’s all it takes for you to feel the impact of the November 2015 Paris attacks in a way you never thought possible. It’s the kind of event that’s impossible not to have been hit hard by, no matter who you are or where you are in the world. But seeing the places it happened, as the friends and families of those affected cry and sing together? It’s remarkable. Once again, empathy shows the true power of VR.

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