An Oral History of Immersive VR 360° Movie Four Walls

International Rescue Committee (IRC) has been helping people in conflict and disaster areas for 83 years. The IRC is working in Lebanon, providing services and support to displaced Syrian refugees, many of whom fled their war-torn homeland with little more than the clothes on their backs.

To raise awareness of the refugees’ plight and difficult living conditions, the IRC partnered with YouVisit to produce Four Walls, an immersive VR 360° movie documenting IRC Voice Rashida Jones’ trip to Lebanon to learn first-hand about the refugees’ struggles.

Tapping into the storytelling power of VR, the project has kept their plight top of mind among donors and supporters. In the process, Four Walls has been covered by media outlets ranging from Vanity Fair to NPR’s All Tech Considered. Below, members of the team that created Four Walls look back on learnings from the project.

VR and the IRC

Four Walls marks the first time the IRC has used VR in their storytelling. The organization did a great deal of discovery to learn about the medium and understand how it could play a role in supporting their messaging. In the end, they concluded that an immersive experience could best tell the Syrian refugees’ stories and would allow the IRC to cut through clutter in the media landscape.

Cathe Neukum, executive producer (International Rescue Committee): Technology is always growing; it’s not static, so neither should be our storytelling approach. VR is one of the best mediums out there to evoke genuine empathy and action for a mission like the IRC’s: responding to the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

When you’re watching a traditional video, you’re able to multi-task. But once you don the virtual-reality goggles, the rest of the world around you disappears and you’ve entered into a completely simulated experience. Even watching without a VR headset is a powerful experience. Such intuitive technology has a real potential to tell real-life stories in more compelling ways, building awareness for our donors and supporters.

We partnered with YouVisit, because we were impressed by their willingness, excitement and energy to help us tell this important story in an immersive way. It’s critical to have the right creative partner – especially when experimenting with such a new medium – and YouVisit knew we wanted to get into this space.

Alex Pedigo, VR content specialist (YouVisit): In the western world we see constant imagery of refugees in various stages of a painful and difficult situation on the internet or TV, both of which are virtual. Very rarely do we absorb this imagery as a reality in our world. VR is an amazing tool in telling the story of people in any need because it allows a viewer to experience these stories in a more immersive way. It can act as a bridge between the reality of this world and the reality of our own world using virtual technology. I believe this bridge invites us to step into reality, which in this case is the very important reality of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Reflections on a seven-day shoot in Lebanon

YouVisit’s cameras documented the refugees’ difficult conditions living in tent camps and dilapidated homes in a truly moving way.

Cathe Neukum: From a production POV it was interesting to observe how non-invasive VR is in the field. It’s easy to set up the camera and then forget about it – of course making sure you are nowhere near the camera! It is a different way of working and thinking about how scenes unfold. No walk and talks – no traditional B-roll set ups. How to get from scene to scene is very different visually. But the main learning curve was really around distribution and how to get more eyeballs on the project.

Alice Shindelar (writer/director, YouVisit): We were in Lebanon for five days. The YouVisit crew — Rakan Shaker, Ben Leonberg, and Alex Pedigo — showed up a day before Rashida [Jones] to do a whirlwind scout of all of the locations where we’d be shooting, meet the refugees, various IRC employees, and lock in the rest of our schedule. This scout saved the shoot. We never would have been able to get what we got if we’d met refugees and plopped a camera down in their kitchens to shoot and interview with a celebrity that same day. Then the day Rashida [Jones] arrived we shot at the center for Working Children and Street Kids, then it was the abandoned building in Tripoli and the Palace on Mount Lebanon. The following day was the tented settlement in the Bekka Valley with the four sisters, and a cooking class for women that evening. On the last day it was just the YouVisit crew that went to the camp where we shot with Huda and her family.


YouVisit’s Alice Shindelar with Huda, a Syrian refugee, at a camp in Lebanon.

The importance of creating presence

While the Syrian refugee crisis has been news since it began in March 2011, the IRC wanted to dispel misconceptions about life as a refugee. Contrary to popular belief, refugees, who are prohibited from working legally, are paying rent to live in dangerous substandard conditions in tents and homes in cities, a fact that is not widely known.

Cathe Neukum: Many people would say refugees live in a camp. But more than 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq live as urban refugees.

Most refugees make their ways to the cities, which can present more opportunities to live a normal life again. In cities, refugees face extremely harsh conditions and are confronted with various challenges: they’re denied access to basic services such as education or health and are exposed to harassment, intimidation and discrimination. They also have trouble finding affordable housing, as it’s illegal for Syrian refugees to work in Lebanon without a permit, which can be difficult to obtain.

Many live in cramped apartments, abandoned buildings and partially constructed buildings. And while some still shelter in tents, this traditional image no longer paints a true picture of how refugees live in the 21st century.

So we asked ourselves: how can we illustrate the living situation for Syrian refugees in a way that is impactful and resonates with audiences, and makes it clear to them that refugees do not live well? Virtual reality.

When you watch Four Walls, you’ll see three different living environments: tented settlements, abandoned buildings and partially finished buildings. It’s a really 360° experience. You can get an accurate picture of this environment. You can’t physically touch anything, but it’s your own experience.

The film provides a stark perspective on the dire conditions people live in and our viewers are placed within a crisis that isn’t going away anytime soon. We have to reach people we haven’t reached before and while they might not care about the refugee crisis in the Middle East at first, virtual reality may be the medium to get them to engage and take action.

Ben Leonberg (creative director, YouVisit): VR is fundamentally different than other forms of storytelling. It’s more than just watching a spherical picture or video; VR offers a sense of presence (or perspective) that can’t be reproduced in other mediums. In Four Walls, feeling like you’re really in the homes of refugees or seeing their daily struggles first-hand is extremely impactful.

Alice Shindelar: VR creates an undeniable sense of presence. You can’t look away. When you’re standing in the middle of a refugee camp with a woman looking right into your eyes while she tells you about being kicked out of her family’s home you can turn around and check out what’s behind you, but you’ll still be looking at the tarp and plywood shacks where her and her family have been living for four years. When she points to the shack where her brother-in-law died two years into their exile you turn around to see that it’s right behind you.

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The one thing you will always remember about making Four Walls ….

Alex Pedigo: I was involved in this project in a very unique way. My primary job was to photograph everything happening, including YouVisit Studio team behind-the-scenes shots, scenery, portraits of refugees, Rashida’s experience in Lebanon and portraits of Rashida. I spent a lot of my time looking through a lens to capture and communicate everyone else’s experience through imagery. It required a lot of focus and attention to the interactions and feelings expressed around me which can sometimes make it difficult for me to absorb the reality that is surrounding me.

After we returned to New York and we began our post production process, I spend a lot of time in a VR headset testing various versions of the Four Walls experience. It wasn’t until then that I had the opportunity to reflect on the content we captured from a creative standpoint but also an emotional and critical one. I was able to relive my experience over and over again through a virtual reality headset. In the end it was through a lens that I captured our hurting world and it will be through a lens that I remember it. However, remembering this experience is not enough as action must be taken.

Alice Shindelar: Interviewing Huda, a Syrian refugee. She is the woman in the blue headscarf that bookends the story. We almost didn’t interview her. It was the last day, and everyone was exhausted. But we’d met her on our scout and knew that she spoke English. I knew that this would be an opportunity to hear from a refugee in her own words without having to go through a translator. We set up the camera with her on one side and me on the other so we could look at each other through the camera. Then I was removed in post. This is a technique we use to maintain a human connection. It’s next to impossible for a professional actor to deliver honest emotion straight into a camera. And then she did the rest.

She delivered the most open and honest interview I’ve ever gotten, all within a few minutes of us arriving at her home. That’s perseverance right there. She knew that there was a possibility that something she might say in this interview could get in front of the right people that might be able to make a difference, if even a tiny one, and possibly one that would never come back to affect her and her family. Huda used to be an elementary school English teacher who lived in a modern apartment built by her husband and spent weekends on the beach. She’s now living in a muddy ditch on the side of the road, in a country where she can’t legally hold a job, for the last four years. There’s nothing that can be said to express what it means to meet a person like that. That bit of hope almost negates the other gargantuan truth about humanity that stares you in the face when you take a trip like this.

Ben Leonberg: The difficult practicality of actually making the experience. We shot under rough conditions, time constraints, language barriers, and really high temperatures. But my favorite memories are also about physical production: specifically getting to meet and work with some of the kids. My French isn’t great, but I speak it at close to the same level as most pre-teen Syrians so I made a lot of new friends at each location.

VR will inform nonprofits’ storytelling

Cathe Neukum: VR is still an experiment for the IRC, but we’d like to keep this medium in our toolkit for our ongoing narrative about the world’s worst humanitarian crises. We can’t bring people to the field to bear witness to countless tragedies throughout the world, but we will do our best to raise awareness through VR. For future projects we will need to do a better job at distribution (as previously stated). It would be important to have an event in mind before production.

Making indelible connections

Cathe Neukum: The best quotes would be from the NPR story since those were from the IRC gala, but those in office who watched were very moved. And these are people who have seen it all and are very familiar with the issues. When people from the IRC are moved to tears, then we know we have succeeded.

Donations to support the IRC’s work on behalf of Syrian refugees in Lebanon can be made here.