Syria: citizen journalists film war in 360° virtual reality with Nobel Prize nominees

by Ola Aljari
For Europeans, it is hard to grasp the daily reality of living in a war zone, or to understand why hundreds of thousands of Syrians risk their lives to seek asylum here. The war is complicated, and has been going on for so long that many TV viewers and newspaper readers experience ‘compassion fatigue’. But citizen journalists in the region are trying new ways to engage the audience, using Virtual Reality (VR).

SMART is a Syrian news agency that was founded in 2013. The first movie SMART produced using virtual reality was about Jesr AlShughur, a city in the north-west countryside of Idlib province, after it was taken out of the Syrian regime’s control. The city was completely destroyed, because of the clashes and the regime’s bombardment. The team needed three months to shoot the movie, then the 360 degree clip was assembled in the Okio Studios in Paris. The film showed the mass destruction of Jesr AlShughur, as well as the disastrous results of the regime’s bombardment.

Nobel’s nightmare

SMART has produced a new film “Nobel’s Nightmare”. The film focuses on the hard and dangerous work of the civil defence teams; called “Syrian White Helmets”, in Aleppo city in the north of Syria, who were nominated for a Nobel Prize.

Syrian and Russian air forces have been carrying out daily air raids on Aleppo, causing thousands of casualties among civilians. The White Helmets bravely risk their lives to rescue the people. Therefore, the SMART team tried to show the dedication of the civil defence teams under these difficult and dangerous conditions; as the SMART news agency wrote on social media.

ECPMF’s Refugee Journalist Ola Aljari interviewed two SMART crew members, who worked on “Nobel’s Nightmare” to talk about their experience with virtual reality. Their stories are remarkable.

Zakaraya Orabi is a Syrian photo-citizen journalist. He worked for three years as a correspondent of Hawa Smart Radio and SMART News Agency, he also shot “Nobel’s Nightmare”. He said: “Virtual reality is new in Syria. I can describe it as a whole new life for me as a photographer. It is a unique experience that provides high credibility, because it helps people to see all sides of the incidents and what is happening. It takes the people to the places we show in the movies, so they can witness some incidents and live them as if they were physically in the place. However, I still think that what is going on in Syria is hundreds of times harder than any movie can show."

Fear of cameras

Zakaria said that his work was not easy and that he faced many difficulties using a new technology. “There were some difficulties during shooting in battle fields and strategically important points. The Free Syrian Army fighters did not understand all the time what is virtual reality or how does our cameras work. They thought it might have been dangerous and they were afraid of getting bombarded because of the cameras”, Zakaria explained. “Some civilians were worried, because they do not like it when a movie or a report shows details about their neighborhoods, due to the danger of getting bombarded. So, we had to deal with these concerns and explain the process to the people. We were not able to shoot immediately after air raids, because of the mass destruction. I remember that once I went to shoot a massacre after an air raid on Alkallase (a neighborhood in Aleppo city); there were many victims and the destruction was terrifying. People were afraid of the cameras and they thought that the jet fighters would come again and bomb the place tracking the cameras. However, most of the time people were supportive and we were able to interview some of them or even shoot when they were around”, he added. 

Moustafa Hafiz is a 24-year-old graphic designer from Aleppo. He worked as a freelancer before the Syrian revolution began. After the revolution, he worked as a nurse in a medical centre. Afterwards, he became a citizen journalist. Moustafa works now with SMART and he assembled the clips of “Nobel’s Nightmare” into the 05:37 minutes movie.

The audience can be eye witnesses of what happens”

“Using virtual reality gives the audience a better chance to see what is going on from a wider angle. It helps them to understand what happens when the regime’s helicopter drops a barrel bomb, or when the Russian jet fighters bomb the civilian neighborhoods. The audience can be eye witnesses of what happens”, Moustafa told ECPMF. “People liked the movie. They were able to live the cruelty of the bombing and death. They appreciated the efforts made by the Free Syrian Civil Defense workers. We received many of these reactions from people who live in Syria or out of it”, he added.

Moustafa talked also about a different kind of difficulty that the team faced. “Our team did not know a lot about virtual reality and how to use it. We needed training. Besides, the photographers could not check directly what they have shot; like what they usually do with 'dslr' cameras. After that, we had some difficulties with putting the photos together. We needed 3 months and great efforts to produce a 5 minute movie”, he said.

“The movie tells the story of the Free Syrian Civil Defense workers; the white helmets. We wanted to show the world their incredible task of saving people’s lives every day. We wanted to help the White Helmets to get the Nobel Prize,” Moustafa concluded.