The New York Times Op-Docs channel is taking viewers into immigration detention centres with a virtual reality (VR) documentary showing the hardship imposed on imprisoned immigrants defending themselves against deportation from the UK.

Produced by British virtual reality company VR City, and featured by the NYT on 19 December, the experience uses immersive storytelling techniques to show viewers what it's like inside a high security immigration detention centre where thousands of people are held without any time limit on their stay.

“Before we made the film, I had heard a little about immigration detention centres in the news, but unless you really go looking for more information, you don't get a deeper understanding of what they are, what they look like, or who’s in them,” said the VR documentary’s director, Darren Emerson.

“At the end of the 14 minutes, the hope is that the viewer feels the weight of the situation, having explored what it’s like to be in one. We want it to affect them emotionally.”

Narrated by formerly detained immigrants, the film guides viewers through various physical and emotional stages of the process, with a mixture of 360-degree video and computer-generated imagery (CGI).

The hope is that the viewer feels the weight of the situation, having explored what it’s like to be in one. We want it to affect them emotionallyDarren Emerson, VR City

The experience from VR City, titled "Invisible", was commissioned by Sheffield Doc/Fest and Site Gallery.

Certain parts of the creation process proved challenging. Emerson explained that the team were not given access to Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre in London, the largest detention centre in Europe. Instead, they had to use a decommissioned prison in Gloucester to form the basis of their story.

“Another of the main challenges was that most of our contributors were uncomfortable about being seen on camera, because they either still felt the power of the Home Office, or they hadn’t got their case resolved for staying in the country – so in most cases, we only had the audio interviews,” he said.

“The interviewees all told a similar story, but described different parts of the experience in different ways, so the creative response to that was 'how do we create specific scenes to tell the story in sections?'”

The VR experience dramatises actual accounts from the migrants who told their stories, from their experiences arriving at the detention centre to leaving and integrating into society, including the experiences and thoughts they have in between.

Each of the scenes has a different creative and technical approach in order to keep audiences engaged, with the team trying to capture the essence of each contributor even though the viewer can’t see them.

“In one scene, we use CGI to put the viewer under water, where they hear a character we called R discuss the mental anguish he experienced, where he was feeling like he was going crazy, needing to bang his head against the wall,” Emerson said.

“I wanted to produce non-literal visualisation of what he was saying, so we made his voice represented by a waveform of bubbles that rose to the surface which couldn’t be reached – we needed the viewer to feel trapped, just as the voice-over was describing."

Emerson also explained that although this story could be told in other forms, storytelling through virtual reality helped to drive home the documentary's message to the viewer, who could witness this in first person.

“I feel the power of VR is about emotion, the intensity of the experience presented, and the ability to interact with it and take it in,” he said.

“Used in conjunction with great testimonies of people that were brave enough to talk to us and tell us a story, the combined effect is something very powerful, which I think only VR is able to do at the moment .”

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