Today (Jan. 22), on the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, I went to Planned Parenthood. I sat in a room, bright and sterile, with a distraught woman as she recalled the trauma she endured just minutes prior — when she was verbally harassed by dozens of protesters outside the health center’s doors. She was visibly shaken and upset.
Then, I walked outside and witnessed first-hand the kind of tasteless vitriol that was being said. As I neared the Planned Parenthood’s doors, I was called a “whore” and a “wicked jezebel feminist.” My morals were questioned. I was told repeatedly that what I was doing, by accessing my right to safe and accessible health care, was the devil’s work. I felt sick to my stomach.
And then it was all over. Their threats were silenced, and I was left in the dark. I took off my virtual reality headset and went on with my day. But for millions of women across America, they’re not so lucky. They don’t get to just walk away from that distressing experience; they live through it. I’ve never been aggressively harassed by a group of strangers while walking into my local Planned Parenthood. But now I know, just a little bit, what that feels like — and it feels pretty sh-tty.
“Across The Line” is a five-minute immersive virtual reality experience that places viewers in the shoes of a patient entering a health center for a safe and legal abortion. I had the opportunity to demo the harrowing project at the Sundance Film Festival.
Using real audio gathered at protests, scripted scenes and documentary footage, filmmakers Nonny de la Peña, Brad Lichtenstein and Jeff Fitzsimmons created a powerful depiction of the often toxic environment that many patients must walk through to access health care on a typical day at Planned Parenthood. Virtual reality is often referred to as an empathy machine, and experiences like “Across The Line” best demonstrate its strength as a storytelling tool.
“Virtual reality is a powerful medium to immerse people into the problems that we face today in our society,” Lichtenstein told MTV News at the demo. “My background is social issues and documentary filmmaking, and VR represented an opportunity to radically increase the kind of empathy that audiences can have for the people that we give voices to in these pieces.”
Most people think of video games when they think of VR, but a burgeoning group of innovative filmmakers and storytellers are producing virtual reality documentaries and scripted narratives with the unprecedented ability to affect us emotionally.
For the creators of “Across The Line,” VR was the optimal way to put viewers on the front lines of this often overlooked social issue, and to help them better understand what women across America go through just to access their rights to safe, legal and accessible abortions and health services. Using VR, Lichtenstein aimed to bring viewers closer to the real issue, in the hopes that they can make more informed decisions about their choices. “A piece like this can bring more people into this conversation and add more voices,” he said.
Not to mention, it’s timely. Just yesterday, an aggressive anti-abortion protest forced a D.C. charter school to cancel class for two days. Their mission? To disrupt the nearby construction of a Planned Parenthood.
“How else can we help people understand the experience that young women go through when they’re trying to access health services like Planned Parenthood?” Lichtenstein added. “We feel like even though it happens a lot, people are so removed from that experience. They don’t know what it’s like to be yelled at and to have somebody tell you what you’re allowed to do with your body, for people to tell you that you’re an evil, awful person. And these are total strangers who come up and think that they have the right to tell you what you ought to do.”
As the director of the project, De la Peña, a pioneer in virtual reality and immersive journalism, spent a year bringing “Across The Line” to life. She captured audio from Planned Parenthood clinics across the country, from small-town America to metropolitan cities. At one point during my VR experience, a man violently called me a whore. I was surprised to learn that this bit of dialogue was recorded in Los Angeles.
“When you go through the piece, every single thing is documented from real scenarios,” De la Peña told MTV News. “Everything you’re hearing really happened. This is not some fictional piece we’re asking people to have some sort of connection with. We’re actually putting people in the shoes of young women and what they have to go through.”
But how many people will really get to experience this emotionally powerful scenario? The team is still figuring that out. Beyond the festival circuit, there really isn’t a home for narrative VR in the current entertainment landscape. (Of course, that may change when the consumer version of the Oculus Rift ships in March.) In order to propel the kind of change they want to see, they partnered with Planned Parenthood — the non-profit organization also co-executive produced the project and consulted on the film’s script — to help bring “Across The Line” to the masses.
“There’s a lot of ways to bring it to scale,” Lichtenstein said. “This experience is obviously a very intense experience, and it’s a fantastic experience, but we also want to be able to distribute this onto other platforms, like Google Cardboard, so that it can be distributed more widely. We’re also partnering with Planned Parenthood to launch intimate pop-up experiences.”
I personally hope they do find a way to make powerful VR narratives like “Across The Line” more accessible to the public. Making people bear witness to such atrocities is an effective way to invoking change. It should make us uncomfortable — and more importantly, it should inspire us to speak out.