Joshka Wessels: Why we need more empathy. Syrian video activism, immersive cinematic VR and emotional intelligence.

Welcome to a K3 seminar with Joshka Wessels, Senior Lecturer in Communication for Development, K3.

The title of the talk is:

Why we need more empathy. Syrian video activism, immersive cinematic VR and emotional intelligence.

It will take place on Wednesday, September 11 at 10.15-12.00 in The K3 Open Studio, NIC 0541, Niagara.

Below you will find an abstract for the talk.

In this seminar, I will analyse the relationship between experiences of war, emotions, 360-degree YouTube videos and cinematic VR. In 2014, I interviewed a range of video activists from Aleppo for my postdoctoral research project on the role of YouTube in the Syrian uprisings. In order for them to tell the world their story, the Syrian video activists used their mobile phones to the maximum and experimented with all kinds of digital audiovisual technology such as drone technology and 360-degree video cameras. The first 360-video from a war zone was filmed by Syrian video activists in Aleppo. In 2014, British filmmaker Christian Stephen of RYOT, connected with video activists from Aleppo Media Centre (AMC) inside Syria to record 360-degree video. It consisted of a rig with 6 GoPro cameras who recorded 360-degree video in realtime, which could them be experienced and watched by a user using a head mounted set, like the Oculus Rift headset. In 2015, Youtube enabled uploads of 360-degree videos and this led to the first ever 360-degree video footage from a warzone, from Aleppo, entitled ‘Welcome to Aleppo’.

Syrian filmmaker and video activist Abdallah Hakawati recorded a video clip in the district of Bustan al Qasr in Aleppo during daily bombings, which later became known as the ‘Freedom Song Girl’. In the clip, which was recorded on 16 November 2012, a young girl sings a famous revolutionary song about freedom, during a protest in Aleppo. She is repeatedly singing her hope for freedom when she is suddenly interrupted by a deadly bomb blast that erupts behind her (Al Arabiya, 2013). This video clip went viral, up to a point that Abdallah Hakawati lost total control over where the clip was being distributed. When the Freedom Song Girl YouTube video went viral, it was picked up by many different international news agencies. Eventually the clip caught the attention of Nonny de la Peña, a pioneer media artist from California. De la Peña is from the University of Southern California (USC) and has been at the forefront of the use of Virtual Reality technology in documentary and journalism. She has developed so-called Immersive Journalism, which is a form of media production that allows first person experience of the events or situations described in news reports and documentary film (de la Peña et al., 2010). de la Peña shares the concern that the overload of audiovisual information available today, desensitizes audiences who then become indifferent to the suffering of others and predicts that the role of Immersive Journalism could reinstitute the audience’s emotional involvement in current events (Ibid. p.298). The first person experience is generated by the use of a head-mounted display, which places the user in a virtual 3D environment that will give an embodied experience (Ibid. p.292).

In 2016, the premiere of the Boost Hbg, Film-i-Skåne and Malmö Stad supported cinematic VR film “Flykten från Sverige” took place at the library of the city of Malmö. The experience, which was directed by me, went on tour through Skåne and other places in Sweden and eventually won a prize for best VR in 2018 at Skåne’s Pixel filmfestival due to the emotional impact of the installation. “Flykten från Sverige” is a fiction cinematic VR installation, viewed on a VR headset and tells the story of a flight from Malmö under bombardment, from the point of view of an eight-year old child. The installation is interactive and users can experience three different scenarios of fleeing from Malmö under war. Spatial sound recording was used to enhance the feeling of presence in VR. The production team used so-called emotional mapping to design how the single-user should feel at the end of each scenario; despair, frustration and relief. The emotional impact of the piece was considerable, with users sometimes crying after both the despair or frustration scenarios.

The use of immersive cinematic VR has been coined as an ultimate medium to enhance empathy and bring more understanding for the point of view of others. Through the use Virtual Reality Perspective Taking (VRPT) (van Loon et al., 2018) the user is placed in a situation where he/she rarely or never will be and looks at the world through the eyes of someone else. van Loon (2018) claims that VRPT increases cognitive empathy for specific others. Comparing the use of 360-degree video to report from the Syrian War with the development of immersive journalism and cinematic VR for fictive interactive scenarios of refugee experiences, I am critically discussing the assumption whether VRPT is necessarily a ‘force for good’.


Al Arabiya, ‘Song Sung Blue: footage of singing Syrian hit by blast goes viral’, 6 February 2013,

van Loon, A., Bailenson, J., Zaki, J., Bostick, J. and Willer, R. (2018) Virtual reality perspective-taking increases cognitive empathy for specific others. PLOS ONE 13(8): e0202442.

de la Peña, Nonny, Peggy Weil, Joan Llobera Elias Giannopoulos Ausiàs Pomés, Bernhard Spanlang, ‘Immersive Journalism: Immersive Virtual Reality for the First-Person Experience of News’,  Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 19/4 (2010), pp. 291-301. 

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