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VR Film Series Takes Viewers Inside Pakistan

Herding wayward goats and hiding behind a camel are not the things you'd associate with the future-tech sound of the words "virtual reality." But as filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy found out as she made Look But With Love, such are the rigors of working on a VR film set.

Look But With Love is a series of five VR films that take place in Pakistan: A Story of Women, A Story of Dance, A Story of a Doctor, A Story of Music, and A Story of Water. They're all answers to a question Obaid-Chinoy says she's often asked as she travels: "What is it like to be in Pakistan?"

Though she has formidable experience in film, she struggled with how best to convey the feeling of being in the country. "I'm looking for a medium that is immersive enough, that allows people to literally walk in other people's shoes," she says.

Obaid-Chinoy worked on Look But With Love with fellow director and VR pioneer Chris Milk. As a former journalist and an activist, she's used to documenting reality as vividly as possible. So when she met Milk and Aaron Koblin, co-founders of VR storytelling firm Within, she realized VR could change perspectives, including her own.

Milk and Koblin met when they worked on a project together at Google, where Koblin lead the Data Arts Team. After their collaboration, the two set out to form their own company and create the Within app to serve as a platform for VR that revolves around storytelling.

And a storyteller is how Obaid-Chinoy describes herself. She's made documentaries that have garnered her two Academy Awards as well as seven Emmys (one just this month) and directed and produced Pakistan's first animated film. Despite her formidable background in film, when it came to working in VR, she was a novice and appreciated the expertise of Within.

"The technology isn't as advanced yet as a filmmaker would like," she says. There are limitations in how much movement can be captured when 100 cameras have to be rigged for one shot. She describes spending all day in the desert to film A Story of Water to only get four hours of work from the fast-overheating cameras that could not withstand the searing 120-degree temperature.

Still, Obaid-Chinoy is a tremendous advocate for VR, largely due to its accessibility. As part of the project, she's bringing Google Cardboard into classrooms across Pakistan to expand the worldview of students. It's the same thing she hopes for those who view Look But With Love.

"It places you there, in a country you may not have gone to or may not ever plan to go to but a country that you might empathize with, a people you might empathize with once you watch these films," she says.

When Obaid-Chinoy came up with the name for the piece, she didn't have far to go. "Look, but with love" is a slogan imprinted on the back of many of the painted trucks and rickshaws that traverse Pakistan, and she hopes viewers will "look at Pakistan gently, with love."

A Story of Music

A Story of Women follows the training of some of the women who make up Pakistan's counterterrorism squad. As they rappel down buildings, shoot rocket launchers, and come dangerously close to bombs, they talk about what brought them to choose such work and how it's viewed.

Though A Story of Dance, which features Bina Jawwad passing on cultural dance to children is tonally different from A Story of Women, Jawwad is no less brave than the women commandos. There is a movement to ban teaching dance in schools in Pakistan, and Jawwad is working against that to preserve the country's heritage.

In A Story of a Doctor, it is impossible to not be moved by the scenes in an emergency ward that tends to children who live in a surrounding slum. Anxious parents wait for signs of improvement in their children, in some cases participating in the care themselves, like one mother who hand pumps oxygen into a tiny child mostly obscured by surgical tape and tubes.

Sound fills the next episode, A Story of Music. Musician Saif Samejo was moved to film instruments that are rarely played anymore in Pakistan. He speaks of seeing himself as an activist as well as a musician and he talks to those who are among the last to play traditional instruments and songs.

It's life itself that Ali Akbar tries to save in A Story of Water. Poison plagues the tiny bit of ground water that the people of the desert Thar region have to survive. Akbar creates awareness and solutions for villages that are suffering.

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Milk says of VR, "The human connection that you feel with someone that feels immediately present to you, that you feel like you're sitting on the same berth with and that you're breathing the same air with, there's a powerful feeling of connection that happens there."

In a way it's the same sort of connection that Obaid-Chinoy feels with VR itself now that she's spent so much time with it. "To me it's the kind of medium that can change the way we see the world," she says.

To experience Look But With Love, download the Within app.

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