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Make Me Smart with Kai and Molly

‘Indefinite’ uses virtual reality to show detained immigrants’ despair

Ben Johnson and Danielle Stephens Jan 27, 2017
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A still from Darren Emerson's film "Indefinite." 
Darren Emerson

President Donald Trump said his recent immigration ban, directed at people from seven Muslim-majority countries, is aimed at preventing terrorist attacks.

But tens of thousands of immigrants who have not carried out any attacks are already incarcerated both in the U.S. and the U.K. 

Many of them face legal battles to avoid deportation after traveling from other countries to claim asylum.  

Britain is the only country in the European Union that can hold detainees indefinitely, meaning immigrants who arrived to seek asylum end up being locked away with no way of escape and no way of knowing when they will be free.

In Britain, Immigration Removal Centers hold people that the government is trying to deport.  

Darren Emerson is a filmmaker who used virtual reality in his latest documentary film, “Indefinite,” to tell the stories of a few of the people imprisoned in these detention centers. Emerson joined us to talk about the film, which can be viewed on The New York Times website.

Being submerged under water is a running theme throughout "Indefinite."

Being submerged under water is a running theme throughout “Indefinite.”

The following transcription has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ben Johnson: There’s one scene in the film with this viewer, I guess, is sort of standing in this large room, and you’re hearing one of these folks who’s had these experiences describe their experience, and all of a sudden the ceiling turns into water. Can you talk a little bit about that scene and how you decided to represent the audio description in that visual way?

Darren Emerson: That part of the film we’re talking to a person called R, and he was in Harmondsworth detention center. We went to visit him. He says if you strip away your access to friends, to family, to society and just lock people up, then you kind of really strip away what is the essence of a person. One of the major themes of the film about loss of identity. And I wanted to people to feel the suffocating weight of frustration and despair that this guy had. One of the advantages of using quite creative imagery is that people can take different stuff from it.

Johnson: Do you think that virtual reality is a platform that does that on a level that a lot of other platforms or mediums, I guess, you could say don’t?

Emerson: Virtual reality has as a medium has qualities the other mediums don’t have. So it combines a lot of mediums. Really, that’s about immersion. It’s about intimacy; it’s about agency within, interactivity and intensity as well. And within that experience, I think there is a genuine sort of exchange between the audience and the subject matter.

Johnson: If you could choose a target audience, who would it be?

Emerson: I think it would be the working class of this country, who feel disenfranchised and are being told that they should blame immigration. I generally feel that there needs to be more compassion and understanding. 

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