Virtual reality (VR for short) may finally be fulfilling its promise as game-changer for the film industry. Long associated with clunky headsets and headache-inducing graphics, VR is now showing what it’s capable of doing. At the Sundance Film Festival, for example, the Jaunt VR Lounge shed a spotlight on the many filmmakers using VR in thrilling new ways.

One of the projects presented there is Angel M. Soto’s Bashir’s Dream. The boricua director, whose film La Granja earned him strong reviews a few years back, set his sights far away from his homeland for his latest endeavor. Bashir’s Dream centers on a young Syrian refugee who survived a shooting by a sniper. Using the recent advances in VR technology, Bashir’s Dream immerses you in Bashir’s world as he recounts his experiences and, in added whimsical animated sequences, what his hopes are for the future. Hoping to quite literally put you in the shoes of a refugee, Bashir’s Dream is a powerful use of the documentary elements of VR technology, which Soto hopes to use to raise awareness about the growing crisis in the region.

Remezcla caught up with Soto and the creative director and animator of Bashir’s Dream, Fernando Rodriguez, to talk about what drew him to tell Bashir’s story, what this new technological landscape can look like, and why VR documentary filmmaking is the future.

On Where The Project Began

Angel: Bashir’s Dream came up from a trip I did to Jordan in May of last year, shooting a commercial for Save the Children. The commercial got postponed while we were traveling there. We already had the tickets and the stay figured out. So we just decided to venture around. I met a Syrian war correspondent in Jordan who talked to me about this kid he knows. He’s a refugee who got shot by a sniper and is confined to a wheelchair. He was like, ‘Do you want to meet him?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah!’ So I met him and I had him tell his story to me. It was just a beautiful story—just the childlike mentality of life, full of resilience – even after everything he went through. I thought it was a story that needed to be told.

On Making The Jump To VR Storytelling

Angel: Well, two years ago, when I was at Sundance I got introduced to the possibility of VR in storytelling. And ever since, I’d been ruined by the idea of what I could do and how far I could push the boundaries of storytelling with VR. After starting a company in Puerto Rico called TruantVR, I jumped into LA and started directing for Riot News, which focuses on VR journalism. And that’s how I just got doing it. It all started out as curiosity.

VR makes you feel the closest thing to sensorial empathy.

This commercial for Save the Children is a VR documentary-style commercial. That’s what allowed me to shoot this documentary, because we had all the equipment there. But it’s really all about making fully immersive content, and for documentaries, it feels like it’s almost the best use of VR because I can literally try to transport you to the area, or to the character’s life. It’s not that it’s more compelling, but it makes you feel the closest thing to sensorial empathy. It triggers something really nice that compels people and even makes them take action.

Fernando: For us it was a new thing. We’d never done VR before but we had an idea of what it could be. It was an interesting approach, especially the move from live action to animation. You know, the question was, how are we going to represent this in 3D? And also, how are we going to turn this into a VR experience? And then we had to design all these characters that were part of the story. It was very interesting, but we wanted to keep a childish look. So we went for a more stylish look for it.

We watched maybe just one or two VR projects before we started working. We watched this project about a bunny [Baobab’s Invasion] but it wasn’t the style we were going for. It wasn’t like a 3D-style Pixar look but more design-y. Coming from an animation background, making Bashir’s Dream wasn’t so different. We use Cinema 4D for all projects and there are some rigs, all the cameras are there. So we basically just had to build the whole 3D world in there. It was more about achieving the style than anything else. Being able to achieve the timing in the animation that would make you feel you were there.

On Deciding To Use Animation

Angel: The animation comes to Bashir’s Dream as a response to this question as to how to dramatize this incident. He talks about how he got shot and what happened and where he was, and who else got killed in front of him. He’s telling us this story with a smile of a kid who went to hell and back. Then he tells about his dreams, innocent dreams of, you know, traveling the world to get healed so he can walk again, and learn because confined to a wheelchair as a refugee, he doesn’t have the capacity to learn. All he wants to do is travel and learn and play basketball. So when he’s talking about these dreams: what better way to represent them than animation? There are two moments where there’s animation. I went to Fernando Rodriguez, from DYAD Studios in Puerto Rico. He’s one of my best friends from a very young age and we’ve collaborated before. He also does color-correction. I went to him so that he would do the creative direction as to how we could interpret this kid, how we could interpret Syria, and how we could represent this surreal ending and how we could portray such a terrible situation of getting shot by a sniper, and a sniper killing everyone in Syria from a child-like perspective.

My goal is to raise money to get Bashir his operation. If we can make a difference in his life, that’s a win.

On Using VR To Affect Social Change

Fernando: Well, here [at Sundance] a lot of people are talking about it. It’s kind of a great surprise to us because we found out about the festival kind of late, like only two and a half weeks ago. But it’s been pretty amazing and pretty positive.

Angel: People’s reactions have been amazing. Apart from saying that this is one of their favorite pieces, the conversation that it starts is the thing that I like the most. The curiosity as to what is happening in Syria, and the fact that I can get you face to face to experience all of what the subject is going through, it creates that compelling desire to take action. So my hope would be to open a fundraiser so that people who see the piece could take action. That way we can raise money to get [Bashir] his operation so that he can walk again. That’s my goal at the end of the day. It’s easy to exploit anyone and not do anything about it, and us filmmakers can abandon projects, but Bashir’s Dream is such a strong project, about a kid shining a light on one of the craziest situations in modern day history. If we can make a difference in his life, that’s a win. If I can be a megaphone for the voices that can’t be heard, why not? So that’s what I hope people get out of this. When they put down their headsets, they go straight to action.