12 VR Documentaries You Can Watch Right Now

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12 VR Documentaries You Can Watch Right Now
July 7, 2017

Affordable virtual reality is finally here for the world to experience, but that doesn’t mean that people have figured out what to do with the technology. Games have been the obvious first use, horror tiles in particular because it’s so easy to scare someone by placing them in a terrifying situation and scaring them with creatures and ghosts lurking around them.

 

But it turns out that one of the absolute best uses of VR is for documentaries. It may seem strange, but it’s really a brilliant idea if you think about it – what better way is there to connect with the subject matter of a doc than by immersing yourself in their world?

 

The proliferation of cheap VR cameras and increasing know-how by filmmakers means that they’re just going to get better and better from here. Right now, there are a ton of stunning short documentaries that you can check out for yourself. Most of them are free, even with a device as simple as Google Cardboard. Here’s what you need to check out.

Waves of Grace

Available on: Within

 

This is an up-close look at the ebola crisis from one of its survivors, a Liberian woman named Decontee Davis. She was infected with ebola but lived through it, and she’s now one of the few people that can freely interact with the sick because there’s no chance she can contract it again. It’s a gift and a curse – she can comfort the dying, but there’s not much she can do for most.

 

It would be a harrowing enough subject to read, but having to stand there and look around as she holds sick and dying children and talks about a country ravaged by the disease…well, it’s a lot to take. The most terrible scenes are set in a graveyard, as people in white hazmat suits deposit dozens of corpses. You stand there, helpless.

Nomads

Available on: Gear VR

 

Actually three short films in one, this app allows you to spend some time with various nomadic tribes around the world. You’ll live with the Maasai tribe in East Africa, a patriarchal society that values its warriors. You’ll hunt fish with the Bajau of Southeast Asia. And finally, you’ll herd with the Mongols of Central Asia.

 

These are three places you’ll likely never be able to visit in your life and time spent with people you’d never be able to meet. It’s one thing to hear about how indigenous tribes live and another to stand among them and watch it for yourself. Here is where you’ll realize how incredible a tool VR can be to place you in another land. You will honestly feel like you’ve taken a trip to this world and understand these people better than any written word or even a traditional film could accomplish

Clouds Over Sidra

Available on: Within, YouTube

 

I’m convinced that there would be no debate about the Syrian refugee crisis if everyone watched documentaries like The White Helmets and VR docs like Clouds of Sidra, which places you (almost quite literally) in the shoes of someone trapped in an unimaginable situation.

 

It follows a 12-year-old girl named Sidra who lives in the Za’atari camp in Jordan. This UN-produced documentary does its job of humanizing these people admirably, and the choice of Sidra as the focus is brilliant. She talks about what it’s like to live in a camp as a young girl who wants to learn more about the world and escape the tented city where she currently lives.

6X9 

Available on: Gear VR

 

This one is a bit of a cheat, as it’s not a documentary. At least technically. The title refers to the 6 foot by 9 foot cell that prisoners in solitary confinement live in, sometimes for months or even years. The actual cell you find yourself in is a digital creation, but as you look around the room you hear sounds from actual solitary cells. You’re then left alone to figure out what to do with your time, and as you gaze at various things in the room, you hear actual inmates tell you about what life is like on the inside. For example, what it’s like to sit on the cold stainless steel toilet or the importance of a stack of books, which are worth their weight in gold when you’re trapped with nothing but your own brain.

 

The craziest thing? The whole experience lasts a mere nine minutes, but you start to feel yourself losing your mind by the end of it. It’s inconceivable to imagine actually living like this, and for that, it’s as effective as any documentary can hope to be.

Notes on Blindness

Available on: Gear VR, Within

 

Another app that’s just as much experience as documentary! This longer version of the Emmy-award winning short film of the same name is an amazing introduction to John M. Hull, an author who published a number of works on the experience of losing his sight.

 

While I could never say with certainty, this certainly feels like a convincing experience of going blind. I mean, forget Daredevil. Here you are treated with audio diaries from Hull, who was documenting all the ways his ears made up for his waning sight and how the world around him changed as a result of it.

 

Without sound, he has no world. You’ll sit in a park and watch the world come alive as people walk by, rustle newspapers and talk. The wind makes you see trees that weren’t there a second before. Everything is represented as points of life and each new tape shows a new revelation – whether it’s the impact of a choir, or the crushing terror of being out in the world alone and sightless. It’s beautiful and haunting and wonderful.

Notes on Blindness

Available on: Gear VR, Within

 

Another app that’s just as much experience as documentary! This longer version of the Emmy-award winning short film of the same name is an amazing introduction to John M. Hull, an author who published a number of works on the experience of losing his sight.

 

While I could never say with certainty, this certainly feels like a convincing experience of going blind. I mean, forget Daredevil. Here you are treated with audio diaries from Hull, who was documenting all the ways his ears made up for his waning sight and how the world around him changed as a result of it.

 

Without sound, he has no world. You’ll sit in a park and watch the world come alive as people walk by, rustle newspapers and talk. The wind makes you see trees that weren’t there a second before. Everything is represented as points of life and each new tape shows a new revelation – whether it’s the impact of a choir, or the crushing terror of being out in the world alone and sightless. It’s beautiful and haunting and wonderful.

The Protectors

Available on: Within

 

What if I told you there was a free Kathryn Bigelow documentary you can watch right now? Co-created with Imraan Ismail for National Geographic, it depicts a day in the life of African Park Rangers in Garamba National Park, a place where poachers kill elephants for their ivory.

 

Honestly, this short shows where filmmakers will have to change up their craft to truly take advantage of virtual reality. There are tons of shots here, which makes for what’s sometimes a jarring experience in VR, as you have to figure out where you are every time a shot cuts. Fortunately the subject matter is as fascinating as any, as you watch a literal army of Park Rangers training to fight a war against an increasingly militarized group of poachers. What you end up seeing is hard to shake.

Testimony 

Available on: Gear VR

 

An interactive documentary about sexual assault survivors, Testimony gives you access to videos from interviews with five people. Their stories are connected by nodes, and you have to look at a picture of the person to listen to each section of an interview. When you do, you’ll be faced with that person explaining their assault, both what happened during it and what happened afterwards.

 

To say this experience is rough is an understatement. You can’t watch the whole thing without becoming an active participant, looking directly into the eyes of people recounting incredible moments of horror. It’s not easy for any of them, even some of those who have had decades to deal with it, as many have had to deal with shame and a failing legal system afterwards, compounding their experience.

The Fight for Fallujah

Available on: NYTVR

 

One interesting thing about shooting VR documentaries in rough parts of the world is that it’s very hard to leave yourself out of it. Sure, you could just plop the camera down somewhere and hope for the best, I suppose, but if you want to get good shots you’ve got to become part of the film itself. This makes for an interesting look at the battle for Fallujah, as a New York Times reporter and his interpreter are inevitably part of the film. As bullets begin to fly, you not only see the soldiers fighting, but the faces of the press. There have been dozens of documentaries made about the wars in Iraq, but when you are given the option of who to look at and what to focus on, it makes you present in a way a regular camera could never do.

Man on Spire

Available on: NYTVR

 

There’s not much more to this short than its cleverly-titled concept, but it doesn’t need to be any more than that. It’s a simple trip up to the top of the World Trade Center, all the way up the massive spire that looms over all of New York City. It’s a view that you will never get without risking death or arrest, and shows a view that few will ever see. Honestly, it’s a view that few would ever want to see and it’s panic-inducing even from the safety of your VR headset. More than a few people I’ve shown this short to have nearly fallen over after looking at the ground – scary for them, but funny for anyone watching.

Jafri 

Available on: Jaunt 

 

Jafri is a local legend in Melbourne: an African-Australian man who stands in the middle of one of the busiest intersections with signs that read “STOP RACISM NOW.” He’s a refugee that’s found it hard to assimilate into the city, and so once a week, he goes out to spread his message and meet the people.

 

Whereas a normal documentary about this unique man would have just been a piece of his life, with VR, you are able to take the journey with him in the morning and stand alongside him as you see how people react. You see the amount of courage it takes to stand up and be judged by thousands of people, and what he gets from it: handshakes, high fives, and conversations.

Policing Flint

Available on: NYTVR

 

What’s it like to have one of the toughest, most thankless jobs in the country? Here’s an idea. Flint, Michigan is not an easy place to live in the best of times, let alone the last few years, where it’s been faced with non-stop cases of police brutality, growing unemployment, and a community rocked by a water crisis. This film lets you joins the understaffed and morale-depleted police force and see what it’s trying to do to combat all of these issues. We take rides with them and watch them at work, both on the streets and in the halls of the police station.

 

This New York Times “op-doc” is perhaps the most polished documentary in this list, a jarring look at the other side of a story that still takes time to let everyone have their voice. This is the film you show people who are undecided about the impact of virtual reality, because no matter your take on the subject matter, you’ll come out of it feeling like you learned something.

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