Imagine you’re a patient, sicker than you’ve ever been in your life, vomiting and bleeding uncontrollably from a mysterious disease. You’ve been brought to a field hospital to visit the doctor, who examines you from behind goggles and a full-body protective suit.
Imagine you’re visiting a desolate, abandoned city, devoid of human presence for 30 years. You stumble through the crumbled remains of your old apartment, your primary school, the court where you used to play basketball, the pool where you used to swim.
Imagine civil war has forced you to leave your village. You now live in a small home with 20 other displaced people. You’re surviving on water lilies and wild plants, and you walk six hours through a swamp for food aid. It comes in the form of 100-pound bags of sorghum, which drop from the sky into the field around you.
Journalism has always been about telling people what happens in faraway places and to faraway people. We tell their stories through words; film allows us to show a little bit more. But new digital tools, such as virtual reality and 360 video, allow us to bring the viewer even closer, giving them a deeper sense of presence when they’ve been transported to places they cannot ordinarily go.
In the last year, FRONTLINE has created a series of stories in an attempt to both understand the new form of virtual reality and to push the limits of documentary storytelling. “Ebola Outbreak: A Virtual Journey” combines 360 and 2D footage with state-of-the-art computer-generated imagery to take viewers on a journey that begins in the bloodstream and ends on a map of the globe, showing how a single microscopic virus turned into a worldwide pandemic.
Along the way, viewers are transported to Meliandou village, Guinea, where the first known case of the current outbreak was discovered in a one-year-old boy. They find themselves at the base of a hollow tree, once home to hundreds of bats, where villagers believe the outbreak may have begun. They then travel to Sierra Leone as the outbreak spreads and a beloved healer’s funeral sets off a chain reaction of infections. Finally they find themselves outside a Doctors Without Borders field hospital in Liberia, behind a slight fence only meters away from desperately ill patients. At each location, viewers hear directly from the people most impacted by Ebola. And as they transition from one location to the next, CGI maps help them understand the outbreak’s scale, as the contagion spreads insatiably from village to country level, and then across the globe.
Our second film, “On the Brink of Famine,” is an immersive up-close look at life inside South Sudan, where more than 2.8 million people are going hungry and at least 40,000 are near starvation as the result of a devastating civil war. Viewers are taken on a critical mission to deliver food by plane to displaced residents trapped in the swamplands — an operation they experience from the point of view of the humanitarian workers bringing the food, as well as the people on the ground desperately receiving the air drop. They meet a farmer who explains how many of his neighbors are too afraid to farm despite South Sudan’s vast stretches of fertile land and plentiful water. And they go to a clinic treating some of the 680,000 children who suffer malnutrition — six times as many as before the war. By transporting viewers into the heart of this man-made catastrophe, “On the Brink of Famine” allows them to come away with a better understanding of the causes of the crisis and its impact on the people.
People are largely absent from “Return to Chernobyl,” which FRONTLINE launched on the 30th anniversary of the nuclear disaster. The film takes viewers inside the 1000 square-mile “exclusion zone” — an uninhabitable area that includes the city of Pripyat, which was once home to 50,000 residents. It is a place that few are willing to go, where our guide, Aleksandr Sirota travels with a geiger counter to measure radiation levels. Sirota, who was nine years old at the time of the accident, gives viewers an intimate, first-person account of what happened as they explore the haunting empty city. “There was a knock at the door and they told us to be prepared for a temporary evacuation because something happened at the power plant,” he recalls. “Take everything you need. Take your passports and food for three or four days. … We didn’t know we were leaving the city forever.”
In journalism, we are always trying to make the viewer understand what it’s like to be there, to understand why someone did what they did, to put them in someone else’s shoes. These three films, grounded in deep reporting and powerful storytelling, give us a very powerful vehicle to do that.