Selected by Time as one of the best VR experiences at Tribeca earlier this year, Testimony is a project still in its first iteration, according to creator Zohar Kfir. The piece is an ongoing interactive documentary delivered in virtual reality that gathers stories from survivors of sexual assault and their journey to healing.
I spoke with Zohar about her motivations for making the piece, the challenges of working with such a heavy subject matter in a relatively new medium and what the future holds for the project.
Can you talk me through Testimony – What happens when I put on the headset?
Testimony is an interactive VR documentary where viewers are placed directly inside the unfolding stories of five survivors of sexual assault and their journey to healing. The focus of the interviews is less on the abuse itself and more on the aftermath: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and dealing with the legal system, it is an open stage for survivors to talk about what is often not discussed in the media.
The subjects were filmed with “flatty” 4k video seated in front of black background, then edited and brought into Unity, so they appear as floating video panes constructed in 3d space. Original music was composed by Josephine Wiggs who did an amazing job to set the ambience for the piece.
After donning a headset, Testimony surrounds you with the testimonies of the five sexual assault survivors, emerging from a black background. Each individual’s account consists of five nodes tied to each other with a thin line so you know where they begin and end. The VR environment is designed in such way that each interview subject slowly and almost imperceptibly moves towards the viewer as he or she listens to their testimony, and shifts away when viewers move their head to indicate they want to move on. This simple form of interactivity allows the viewer to ‘lean in’ to the listening experience and to disengage if material is too raw or discomforting.
Tell me about the creative process – Did you always know you wanted to make something in VR or did it just seem like the right medium for this piece?
When I first conceived of this project my main thematic was to challenge and confront people. Testimony surrounds you with the testimonies of sexual assault survivors. You literally can’t look away. I was interested to create a deep listening space, and VR proved to be the best medium to do this.
VR for me is a commitment— this stems from the fact that putting on a headset is a commitment to be in a dedicated space and be attentive. You are blind to the rest of the world and you give your full attention to exploring the content.
Working with VR in that regard has posed several conceptual and practical challenges – The first is a design challenge: how best to design an environment that serves as a comfortable and intuitive listening space for viewers to feel engaged with the content of the project without feeling burdened by the emotional intensity of it.
The second is an editorial challenge: how to find the right balance among the various story lines of the assault survivors testifying for the project. This requires making choices regarding content and duration and how to craft these into a three-dimensional story as embedded threads in virtual space.
You chose to make the VR piece interactive – what was the thinking behind this?
Testimony’s non-linear narrative design offers viewers the freedom to either browse testimonies randomly or follow predetermined video trails. This level of user control allows viewers to resist the fixed conclusions that are often a part of linear documentary filmmaking; viewers become active participants in story making. Testimony is less about story “telling” and more about story discovery.
“Testimony is less about story “telling” and more about story discovery.”
The design of the environment was quite challenging in that way– how does one design a platform for storytelling that deals with an emotional and quite heavy subject? I wanted to give viewers all the freedom to choose what they want to watch and construct their own narratives and understandings, but also the ability to disengage very quickly if they feel uncomfortable watching something.
Testimony’s total run time is 40 minutes long, which is quite rare in current VR productions, therefore constructing the experience as an open ended one was important, in such way that viewers have the freedom to explore and not be locked in a linear experience. They could also choose to go back to it later on and listen to the other testimonies.
In that regard, the interactive and experiential design of Testimony empowers the viewers to make their own decisions become active viewers.
“Exhibiting VR works is challenging in many regards, the surrounding environments are often noisy and not private”
Is exhibiting this project challenging? How was it received by the Tribeca audience?
Exhibiting VR works is challenging in many regards, the surrounding environments are often noisy and not private.
Since Testimony was selected for Tribeca’s Virtual Arcade we did not have a separate space to show Testimony, as an installation but only two swivel chairs in the arcade area that were not so private. Ideally, the experience should be viewed in a more intimate and encompassing manner, with a curtain or room divider so viewers can feel safe coming out of the experience that might be triggering to some. At Tribeca I tried to be there every day and talk to people as they get out of the experience so that I could engage in conversation with them and I was surprised from people’s emotional reactions and comments.
What are your hopes for the future of the project?
The goal of Testimony is to expose the public to the voices that are often not heard in the media and uncover the obstacles women and men still need to overcome in order to report assault and confront the legal system.
The piece that premiered at Tribeca and will launch on the Oculus store in June is only the first iteration of the project.
Since VR is still very limited with dissemination and access, the plan is to launch a WebVR platform later this summer (currently in production) so everyone can experience Testimony whether via VR headsets or browsers.
“Testimony provides a roadmap for group action, detailing what we as a society still need to overcome in order to ensure survivors can effectively report assault.”
This ongoing project is structured as an ongoing interactive investigation, an open web platform, that would include testimonies and interviews from people of different national, social, and economic backgrounds. The project’s website will be designed in a well thought-out manner so It would be able to sustain hundreds if not thousands of testimonies into a growing database –sorted by tags, dates and location— these factors would highlight the range of similarities and differences sexual assault globally.
As the project expands special emphasis will be given to bringing researchers and scholars into the conversation. The launch of the project will commence with a global speaking tour, featuring panel discussions in universities alongside public VR demos of the project, as well as a traveling recording booth to capture video testimonies on site.
As an ongoing project Testimony provides a roadmap for group action, detailing what we as a society still need to overcome in order to ensure survivors can effectively report assault.
Testimony is now live on the Oculus site and can be viewed on Gear VR.
Find out more about the project here, or join in the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #ShatterTheSilence.