For the last few months, members of the Freed Voices group have been working extensively with the production team at VR City to help produce ‘Invisible‘ – a virtual reality film about immigration detention in the UK.
Having already won rave reviews at the Sheffield Doc Fest, we caught up with Director Darren Emerson to get his reflections on what it was like to create a film about a site of trauma you were pointedly denied access to and what makes virtual reality such a powerful medium for the re-telling of Freed Voices stories.
How did it come about that you first thought of doing a virtual reality film about immigration detention?
I was actually contacting Detention Action looking for some information about the stowaway from South Africa who died en route to the UK. On the same plane there was another guy and, through talking to the police, the Home Office and the coroner, I found out he was in ‘Harmondsworth’. I’d never heard of Harmondsworth! I searched for it online but didn’t quite understand what it was about. I contacted Detention Action, found out about Freed Voices, watched a few of their videos, read some of their blogs, and then I became determined to do something featuring them and their stories. I’m so glad it happened that way. And it has been very rewarding getting to know the guys and I am proud that the film puts their voices front and centre. That’s something that feels really important, especially in this very toxic climate right now.
How much did you know about detention before you got involved in this project?
I was obviously aware of deportations. But was not so clear on how they happened, or what the structure or apparatus was behind them. I wasn’t really aware of detention centres in of themselves, or what they were like. I might have heard of Yarl’s Wood…It was only when I really looked at the issue that I realised that it had been very widely reported, especially over the last year or so. In many ways, part of the motivation for taking on the project was that there was maybe a bit of guilt there. And that’s why, whilst I am passionate about people understanding the issue through the film, I also want them to do something about it once the headset comes off.
How was the research and interview process?
It was both extremely harrowing and extremely rewarding. I felt that I was meeting extraordinary people, with so much resilience before, during and after their detention – which is, in turn, how we sought to structure the film, in those Three Acts. I was extremely struck by their stories. I felt personally connected to the guys sharing and I wanted to do justice to their experiences. For each person, we spent two, three hours doing a pre-interview. People were so keen to tell their story that in many instances we want way over that. Then we’d come back together and do another few hours of actual recording. I have to admit many times I left those interviews exhausted, with headaches, overwhelmed. They are extreme stories. But stories of extreme strength as much as stories of extreme trauma. And that’s something we were very keen to bring out in the film – that people keep fighting, they are determined, they are brave, they keep going, detention won’t define them.
You were adamant this wouldn’t be a directed campaign film but did you finish the production with a different view, or stance, on what needs to happen on the issue of immigration detention?
Personally, this was a voyage of discovery into the immigration detention estate. Initially – and I don’t think this is surprising, or wrong – I was in a state of outrage. But the further I looked into the issue and understood it is a very complex one, it’s not completely black and white. What is crystal clear, however, is that the current system is not working, it is not even achieving what it has set out to do. And the lack of a time-limit is obviously an outstanding issue that every member of the Freed Voices spoke about, and was clearly affected by. That ‘not-knowing’ seemed to permeate everything in detention. There clearly needs to be more transparency, more accountability, more independent reviews – that all seems obvious. And the fact that its obvious and still hasn’t happened is the real indication something’s drastically wrong. Why such a closed shop? It only arouses suspicion. It is like the government is actively inviting you to distrust the system.
Why is the film called ‘Invisible’?
We were keen that the film focused on issues of identity because detention strips people of their sense of self whilst, at the same time, demanding individuals prove who they are. It is a huge contradiction at work. Themes of identity, and identity-transformation, kept coming up when we were doing the interviews, you couldn’t ignore it. As David (who features in the film) said from his cell in Harmondsworth; “If you take away someone’s freedom, their friends, family, everything that defines them…then you’re made to feel not human anymore.” On the other hand, there is the invisibility of the detention estate itself. It is consciously hidden away from the general public.
What was the hardest thing about making the film?
The form of the film – virtual reality – obviously means it is very different to a normal, straight film. The medium means that viewers really experience something when they put the headset on. But we wanted it to be a combination of evocative story-telling (which the Freed Voices guys were great at) but also with a clarity in message. We wanted it to stand on its own as a documentary whereby people came away with knowledge about the issue. The fear was that people would be impressed with the experience part but not get the full weight of the political situation which frames it. Getting that balance right was difficult, not least when you consider that this was also a 360degrees shoot with no access whatsoever to the main locations associated with detention.
What has been the reaction to the film?
So far, its been overwhelming positive – both in terms of the experience but also in terms of the response to the issue. Its been interesting watching people with the headsets on shout out in shock when certain text/figures come up on their screens. The other day someone shouted out ‘32,000 people detained!!’, ‘The only country in Europe with no time-limit, how is that possible?!’…they couldn’t believe it. Many people can’t really talk after they’ve finished the film. Interestingly, lots have also responded really well to the final scene featuring a demonstration at Yarl’s Wood and the closing audio testimony – both are talking about moving forward, change, empowerment, self-advocacy.
Where is the film being shown? Where can people see it?
The film premièred at the Sheffield Doc Fest last month after it received a special Virtual Reality Commission and funding from the Arts Council and Site Gallery. In July its going to the Melbourne Film Festival, and then it will most likely be doing the festival circuit. We’ve already had a lot of interest from different festivals from across the globe, which is very encouraging. Closer to home, we’re hoping to bring a few headsets along to some upcoming events around detention and migrant justice so people can sample it if they’re interested.