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Three Minutes In Aleppo: Virtual Reality Film Shows The Devastation

Screenshot from the short virtual reality documentary "Welcome to Aleppo."
Screenshot from the short virtual reality documentary "Welcome to Aleppo."


We’ve seen pictures of the Syrian civil war and its victims, yet still, this tragedy can feel distant. But what if you were immersed in it? What if you could feel like you were walking down a ravaged Syrian street, without leaving the United States? That is what happens when you watch the short virtual-reality documentary, “Welcome to Aleppo.”

Here & Now Host Meghna Chakrabarti talks with the journalist who shot the film, Christian Stephen, about the devastation in Syria and making a film in one of the most dangerous war zones in the world.

Interview Highlights: Christian Stephen

Why make “Welcome to Aleppo” a virtual reality film?

“I’ve been covering conflict for a few years now. And, you know, for each one, there’s always the challenge for the filmmaker, or journalist, or videographer to sort of bring something new to the story. Unfortunately, with the Syrian civil war, it’s almost exhausted by four years of drawn-out brutality and an inability for us to breathe life into the lungs of this story. So I thought if, you know, virtual reality really is the brave new world, the new frontier, then why not use it for something important?”

What was it like getting into Syria?

“Well – I had a very rough extraction from Aleppo so I can’t say too much about what surrounds that, but it is incredibly difficult to get in and out. In brief, it’s actually much better not to notify the authorities that you are going in because one phone call goes to the countless gangs that roam the border, and they will sell you happily for $50,000 to $1 million dollars to, you know, local ISIS gangs which will sell you once more, and then once more, and then once more which puts you in limbo and then probably dead in a year or two. So getting in and out is sort of an exercise in stealth and being clandestine. But, you know, traveling within the Aleppo city limits is absurd because the main road in is constantly bombarded by Assad airstrikes. And then once you get into the city, you have aerial bombs and snipers and what they call hell-fire cannons, which are basically just propane gas tanks that are thrown blindly into civilian areas, or what used to be civilian areas. You put all of that together into a bit of a vicious cocktail and then you try setting up a 3D-printed gimbal with six GoPros on it and you have to leave it for two minutes to capture the virtual reality footage. So unfortunately, because it’s such an odd-looking creature – the technology, it looks like you’re trying to set up a bomb and leave it in the middle of the street, therefore you are hunted.”

On close calls

“You know, I had more close-calls in those three, four days than I have in months, to be perfectly honest, and we’ve done front lines in Iraq. We were there in the Gaza airstrike war, etcetera, after public militias, etcetera – and I’ve never felt such sort of internal, bone-crushing terror as being inside Aleppo. So it just goes to show that no matter how desensitized you are, there’s always room for more to fall.”

On what he thinks this film can accomplish

“I still believe thoroughly in the power of the still image, and videography, etcetera. But, you know, I think with the deluge of images and reports that have come out of Syria have sort of numbed the rest of the planet to what’s actually going on. And, you know, VR interested me because it’s actually – it’s incredibly intimate. Because instead of just sitting and watching it, and then switching off and going to another tab where you watch cat videos or something, you are actively looking around the story that I shot. You are actively engaging with the story, therefore you have a vote within it. You are part of it, and virtual reality can bring any viewer even one millisecond or centimeter – whether it’s time or distance involved – closer to the story, then I’ve done my job.”


Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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