Testimony is a documentary that tells the stories of five sexual assault survivors (four women and one male) using virtual reality to bring the viewer into each individual story being told. But it doesn’t use VR to make you a part of the story. Instead, VR is used in a more intimate way, by placing you face to face with rape survivors, where you listen to each person talk very openly about what had happened to them and what follows after their assault; such as the years of suffering and pain, the PTSD, the self medicating, the isolation, and the shame.
“This technique [using VR] allows the audience to make their own connections, resisting the fixed conclusions that are often a part of linear documentary filmmaking and turning the viewers into active participants,” described in a statement from the creators of Testimony. “Testimony is less about story “telling” and more about story discovery.”
The film, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in NYC and was created by director Zohar Kfir, allows you to choose how you want to be a part of the storytelling. You can choose to listen to each story in its entirety, skip parts of a story, or move passively from person to person all by gazing into the faces that surround you in the full 360-degree environment. In the case of Testimony, virtual reality is being used to bring the participant closer by making the storytelling more dynamic, intimate, and powerful.
With a background in experimental video, interactive art and installations, Zohar Kfir was approached by Oculus and DevLab back in October to pitch an idea for a project that would explore the boundaries of VR as an art form. Kfir, who is a rape survivor herself, saw this as an opportunity to create a platform for other victims to empower themselves; to come forward and talk about their own experiences. She wanted to use virtual reality to give victims a voice to express themselves and have an outlet to just talk.
In regards to the role that virtual reality plays in the her film, Kfir says, “Testimony surrounds you with testimonies of sexual assault survivors. You literally can’t look away. You are by yourself and you need to listen and to explore.” She goes on to say, “Viewers become active participants in story-making and have the option to disengage from a particularly difficult moment; When I first conceived of this project I wanted to challenge and confront people, and VR proved to be the best medium to do this.”
Selena Pinnell, who is the creative director at Kaleidoscope VR, one of the collaborating partners, and also one of the rape survivors in Testimony, said “Rape and sexual assault are heavy, hard truths and I have found that sharing with others, no matter how loving their intentions, has often left me feeling more isolated or ashamed. At times I’ve found myself comforting them after sharing what happened to me… Offering my story to Testimony and to a virtual space felt right to me.”
For some of the rape survivors in the film, “seeing themselves in this virtual face-to-face environment was their first time ever wearing a VR headset, and they found the experience to be incredibly moving and powerful,” said Kfir. About seeing her own story being told in this virtual environment, Selena Pinnell said, “in sitting with myself in VR, when Zohar brought in the Gulabi Gang (a group of women based in India who are activist against domestic abuse and other violence against women) walking behind me as I shared how their presence had served as a major role in my healing journey, it completely took my breath away and I literally jumped up from my chair, ripped off the headset and burst into tears. For years I had imagined them just like that, having my back, protecting me, and there they were.” In a recent Time Magazine interview, Pinnell said about the Gulabi Gang, “They became a symbol of safety. I would visualize them around me, protecting me. Suddenly, I saw what I had visualized in my mind come to life. That was very powerful.”
Each segment of the five stories being told is a story within a story, and Kfir makes sure that the VR component isn’t a distraction, instead it heightens the engagement in the most subtle way. It’s not supposed to be an interactive VR experience where you can interact with each individual or change how the room looks. In Testimony, VR is used as a powerful empathy tool, not just to put you into their shoes, but to put you in their path as they talk about what had happened to them and the individual obstacles each one had to endure from the aftermath of their assault.
In the end, Kfir says, “Testimony is a film that I hope will inspire other rape victims to step forward and speak out,” she continues, “I want them to feel empowered knowing they have a voice.” Kfir and the rest of the Testimony creators have plans to launch a web platform that would include a webVR component down the road, and hopes it becomes a place for others to come forward, share their own stories, and build strength among survivors all while shattering silence.
Kfir will be presenting Testimony at the Photography Expanded Symposium on June 8th, and will also be a part of the VR for a Change Summit on August 2nd as a presenter at Parsons School of Design followed up with a University tour in October. Details of Kfir’s future speaking and presenting schedule can be found on the Testimony website.
Testimony is now available on the Oculus store starting June 1st.