On a Friday night earlier this month in lower Manhattan, a man in his late twenties or early thirties was at a bar with some friends when he spotted a group across the room taking turns wearing a Samsung Gear VR headset.
Having never watched something in virtual reality, the man asked the group if he could give it a try. After setting down his drink and putting on the headset, he explored his new world by standing in place and turning in circles. He expected to ride a VR roller coaster like he'd heard about somewhere. Instead, the headset transported the man to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, where he met a young girl named Sidra and her family after they fled the ongoing war back home.
When the man took off the headset a few minutes later, there were tears on his face. He said he needed a moment. He'd heard so much about the Syrian war and refugee crisis in the news, but this felt completely different. It felt real. He asked the group: How could he help?
The movie he watched was "Clouds Over Sidra," a 360-degree documentary directed by United Nations Creative Director and Senior Advisor Gabo Arora, which he created with the filmmaker Chris Milk. The film represents the power of VR to make viewers feel closer than ever to far away people, places and problems.
"People want to actually know who it is that they'll actually be helping, what is their story and how they can have an actual relationship with them," Arora said in an interview. "I think that's where VR has been really terrific, because it bridges the gap that I think otherwise numbers and statistics make just guilt-tripping. This is the first time they can actually feel like they can actually go into that person's space. They can sit with them, they can understand."
Arora added: "I know it's crazy—it's virtual reality, it's not reality—but I think there's something about it that makes people feel it's truer and more authentic."
Clouds Over Sidra isn't the only VR documentary created by Arora and the UN. Previous films include documentaries about the Ebola crisis in Liberia, a Palestinian family in Gaza who lost two sons to an Israeli bombing and a new film about Burundian refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Now, the UN is launching UNVR, a mobile app that will be a destination for VR films created by the UN and filmmakers around the world. Thanks to partnerships with Samsung and Oculus, the intergovernmental organization is using its massive reach to distribute 360-degree camera gear to more than 100 UN countries so filmmakers can tell their own stories about where they live.
The goal is to "democratize VR," Arora said, putting cameras in the hands of creators of different races, different genders, different classes, different beliefs on every continent. Gear has already been shipped to about 10 "hot spot" places like Aleppo, Congo, Gaza, with a larger rollout planned for mid-October.
"I always see this project as an incredible nexus of people who are in the policy world, the tech world and the Hollywood world, the filmmaker world," he said. "Rarely do those three come together, and I think that UNVR makes this compelling for all of those people."
The UNVR app won't just be about watching compelling stories. In fact, the goal is to add a call to action to each film as a way to connect viewers who are moved by a cause to a way to help. That might be through volunteering time, donating money to a nonprofit or hosting a viewing to spread awareness.
This past week at the Toronto Film Festival, Arora launched The Sidra Project, a collaboration with the nonprofit ArtScape to connect people who have seen Clouds Over Sidra with Syrian refugees settling in Canada. With the Sidra Project, Arora hopes to reach 20,000 Canadians with at least 500 more screenings in board rooms, schools or houses. He said the project could be expanded to other countries.
"In Canada, they actually don't like to call them refugees, they call them 'New Canadians,'" Arora said.
The initiative is in a way a follow-up to something the UN did last year during the General Assembly. World leaders watched the film, and then entered a "portal" to have a live conversation with a Syrian refugee in Jordan to learn about their daily lives.
It may seem like a surprise that the United Nations is trying to be a pioneer in VR storytelling, but the UN is shifting the way it tells stories to make a lasting impact. In 2014, the UN partnered with Brandon Stanton, the founder of the photo blog Humans of New York, as a way to raise awareness about the Millennium Development Goals that encompass eight core UN objectives such as reducing poverty and improving child mortality rates. Arora and Stanton traveled to nearly a dozen countries to photograph the people and the places they inhabit.
Arora said his style of storytelling has been influenced by Stanton, who has gained millions of followers by taking photos of the everyday New Yorkers accompanied by a story or a quote.
"We're really trying to change how we do storytelling within the UN," Arora said. "And I think all these films so far take an innovative approach to doing it. It might not seem like that from the outside world, but in a lot of ways, we want to set the tone. It shouldn't just be about what the UN does, it shouldn't be about a donor, it shouldn't be about a program. It should be about the people."