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Directing VR in a War Zone—"The Sun Ladies"
- Friday, Feb. 16, 2018
I was teaching VR in San Francisco when I received an unforgettable call. It was Maria Bello, trying to produce a documentary on the Sun Ladies; women fighting against ISIS. She asked me if I could be in Iraq next week to shoot and direct. I said yes, hung up and cried.
Days later in Erbil inside Iraqi Kurdistan, my heart was pounding. I met one of our producers, Dylan Roberts, and co-director Christian Stephen, both filmmakers and war journalists. We spent six days in Iraq, from the Syrian border to refugee camps in Dohuk, interviewing Yazidi women who had been taken as sex slaves when ISIS invaded Iraq. They are now fighting back with AK-47s and sheer determination to free their captive sisters.
Shooting 360° isn’t easy, even more true in Iraq. Our camera (generously supplied by Google) was the best VR camera in the world, but it also looked like an improvised explosive device, making every checkpoint crossing stressful. When I met the Sun Ladies, I was blown away by their incredible strength and beauty. I also noticed how similar we were. If not for the uniform and machine guns, they were like other women, braiding each other’s hair and sharing photos. That’s why I our film makes people emotional: It’s not about victims of war, it’s not about unattainable movie super-heroines. It’s about you and me. The Sun Ladies and us are the same, just the world around us is different.
Thanks to Christian and Dylan’s expertise, talented artist Wesley Allsbrook, VR-savvy editor Mark Simpson, genius sound supervisor Tim Gedemer and many more, we were able to tell the story of these women in an immersive, intense way. The story I designed is a train of thoughts: Guided by the voiceover of Sun Ladie Captain Xate Shingali, we explore her life, from famous singer in Kurdistan to the frontlines. We mix footage of breathtaking Iraqi landscapes and their military training compound with VR animation and news footage. The most important thing: we bring our audience close to these women, to understand their state of mind, their longing for peace, honor and dignity. VR is about “being there” and empathy. It is vital to take in the environment and capture the emotion. This is done by finding the best camera placement and the right pace through editing. VR is a completely different type of filmmaking. When done well, it can be transcendent. Moving the camera and quick cuts is a language we must learn to let go of if we want to maximize VR’s potential. We must abandon the total control we love as filmmakers and let each viewer see slightly different scenes. Watching a 360° film, the audience has agency, not us, and this is what both fascinates and excites me about the medium.
Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, we offered our audience the choice to write letters to the Sun Ladies. An emotional crowd gathered around the table, picking up pens and paper to write. The day we left, Xate’s second in command, Fahima, came to me and whispered in my ear: “I love you.” I cannot wait to get back to deliver the letters and tell her “me too.”
Celine Tricart recently signed with The Cavalry Productions and SPECTACLE to direct spots and branded content.