Fourteen years ago, the United States invaded Iraq, setting off a series of events that destabilized the region, led to the global refugee crisis and created fertile ground for the rise of ISIS. As the writer Scott Anderson states in his narrative epic, Fractured Lands, “The geography of this catastrophe is broad and its causes are many, but its consequences — war and uncertainty throughout the world — are familiar to us all.”
When The New York Times first started experimenting with virtual reality in 2015, we recognized it as a powerful tool for journalism, a way for viewers to experience events first hand, to use their curiosity and instincts to investigate and understand the world in new and meaningful ways. Taking our viewers to the frontlines of the Iraq war and the fight against ISIS seemed like an urgent use for this nascent medium.
In the summer of 2016, Ben C. Solomon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning filmmaker and video journalist for The New York Times, embedded with Iraqi forces as they pushed into Falluja to take the city back from ISIS. He carried with him a virtual reality camera, filming in 360 degrees as the Iraqi military pushed into the center of the city, fought street by street against ISIS soldiers left behind to fight to the death, and assessed the devastating aftermath of two years under ISIS rule; a makeshift prison with cells the size of dog cages, bombed out destroyed homes, and the harsh refugee camps on the edge of the desert.
In the months leading up to the embed, Solomon researched and built a reliable virtual reality camera rig that would work in hot, unpredictable and dangerous situations. Most of the scenes in the film show him assessing his environment, reporting details and interviewing subjects, a true, immersive picture of how journalists work in conflict environments. Combined with a well-written first person narration, Ben’s presence in the virtual reality film gives the viewers a guide to follow as the story of the battle unfolds, leaving them with the impression that they have accompanied and observed a New York Times journalist as they worked in the field. Virtual reality filmmaking is in its early stages of development, and The Fight for Falluja is widely regarded in the industry as a pivotal moment in the development of virtual reality journalism and storytelling methods.
Viewed over 2 million times across NYT platforms and featured in 6 film festivals to date, The Fight for Falluja was released in August 2016 in conjunction with The New York Times Magazine’s epic 40,000 word narrative, Fractured Lands. If the print story gives readers the context and history to understand how the Arab world came apart, then the accompanying virtual reality film transports them directly into the present, violent center of the unraveling, lending a deeper understanding for how news organizations cover and tell the story of war.