Notes to My Father: A VR Film on the Stark Reality of Sex Trafficking

Notes to My Father is one of the more special projects from the Oculus for Good Lab that I got a chance to see at SXSW. Set in the beautiful landscape of Southern India, this VR film is a moving story about love, trauma and reconciliation between a father and daughter. Centered around a sex trafficking survivor named Ramadevi, the VR film takes you into her traumatic world through a letter written for her father, who unintentionally played a role in her adolescence living in a brothel.

The VR experience begins by introducing Ramadevi and her father. There is a silence between the two, who not until this moment have ever discussed what happened to her while a child. We often hear of human trafficking stories in the media, but this story is told in one of the more intimate mediums.

As I listened to Ramadevi’s words trying to understand her inner struggle and relationship with her father, I noticed how the specific visuals were intentionally chosen to complete her story.

“I did not want to use the voiceover as a means to describe or narrate what the viewer was seeing in the physical world,” said the VR film’s director Jayisha Patel. “Instead, the intention was to juxtapose the beautiful lush visuals with the unseen, dark reality of her internal life so as to challenge the viewer in a visceral way. I hope by doing so, viewers can also tap into the unspoken within themselves.”

Even though this was her first VR film, Patel has mastered 360 storytelling. A great example of this is the scene where Ramadevi touches upon what happened to her in the brothel. You find yourself in a tight train cart surrounded by men staring at you. Ramadevi’s voiceover simply says, “We have never discussed what has happened to me there. I don’t know if you could bear it.” The scene gave me shivers as I sat in the train, in an uncomfortable silence feeling watched.

My eyes quickly searched for another woman as fear crept in and I realized this was the director setting you up to feel the fear and pain of Ramadevi’s experience. Building a bridge between her story and the audience’s empathy for not only just women to connect, but also men, creates a sense of presence and heightens immersion within the story.

Patel states: “What interested me the most about Ramadevi and her relationship with her father was the fact that despite their deep love for each other, they had never discussed what Ramadevi had endured. It was that elephant in the room, the sense that at times, we cannot share the things that hurt us with the ones we love the most. It was that use of silence as a misguided sense of protection, that drew me to their story. Though many may not be able to relate to the extreme tragedy of Ramadevi’s trauma, they are invited to find empathy for her and her father through the universal experience of hiding pain from a loved one.”

Techniques from verbatim theatre were used to create the script that became the voice over. Verbatim theatre is when a script is constructed from the precise words spoken by people interviewed about a particular event. In this case, Jayisha recorded hours of conversations with Ramadevi to create the script for the voiceover. Since she didn’t speak English, a voiceover artist was cast as Ramadevi’s voice. Acid attack survivor Sneha Jawale was chosen to narrate the story as it was incredibly important for Jayisha to have a woman who had gone through her own trauma, who could relate to Ramadevi’s story in some way. This attention to detail not only created an emotional depth but also channeled her pain to the audience in an impeccable manner.

It is evident that Jayisha has created a genuinely special piece that has the ability to create a connection with anyone who experiences Notes to My Father. Not all families go through trauma like Ramadevi has, but everyone has hid their pain from a loved one at some point. The emotional journey of this film not only touches upon this experience but also gives a voice for women to come out with their stories of abuse, helping to further raise awareness for issues that we can help make an impact.

If you would like to learn more about the reality of sex trafficking and help take action, please visit My Choices Foundation.

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