How we made The New Yorker's first-ever virtual-reality film
Welcome to another monthly newsletter by me, the writer Ben Mauk. This month and next, I’ll share news and some behind-the-scenes details of Reeducated, a New Yorker Documentary I’ve spent the last year and a half developing, reporting, writing, and co-producing alongside my collaborator Sam Wolson and a team of artists and editors. I’ll also discuss the nature of reporting and writing in a new medium (virtual reality/immersive animation) on an underreported and poorly understood subject: extrajudicial detention and persecution in Xinjiang/East Turkestan.
Since the fall of 2019, I have been working on an immersive documentary film based on my reporting on Xinjiang, which readers of this newsletter will know also includes a New York Times Magazine cover story, a trial report for the London Review of Books, and a nearly book-length oral history of the region’s mass internment drive for The Believer. This latest work dwarfs those earlier projects in scope and complexity, and involved dozens of collaborators on four continents. I won’t say it was easy keeping it under wraps.
The companion piece to “Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State,” an immersive investigation published by The New Yorker in February (and discussed in my last newsletter), Reeducated, directed by Wolson, premiered this March at SXSW 2021, where the film won the Special Jury Recognition for Immersive Journalism. It is now available to watch on V.R. headset, in a “cardboard” (a ~$15 piece of hardware that turns your smartphone into a V.R. device), and on mobile and desktop at newyorker.com.
These companion New Yorker projects may turn out to be the culmination of my writing on this subject, an attempt to distill my research and reporting — including dozens of interviews conducted along the Chinese border over several years — into two multimedia works that I hope will retain lasting journalistic and artistic value beyond our current news cycle. Most of all, I hope the stories highlight the survival and persistence of these persecuted groups whose very identities render them fugitive before the state.
The first-ever New Yorker Documentary in V.R., Reeducated takes viewers inside one of Xinjiang’s political “reeducation” camps, guided by the memories of three men who were imprisoned together at a facility in Tacheng on the western edge of China. The recollections of Orynbek Koksebek, Amanzhan Seituly, and Erbaqyt Otarbai reveal the secret world of these camps, where detainees spend ten hours a day in classrooms — studying Chinese or taking classes focused on political indoctrination and the dangers of Islam — and often endure torture and stints in solitary confinement.
Drawn from firsthand testimony, survivor sketches, and satellite photos, Reeducated uses pen-and-brush animation (meticulously rendered in three dimensions by Matt Huynh and Nick Rubin) and spatial audio by composer and sound designer Jon Bernson to faithfully reconstruct the men’s shared experiences in an immersive three-dimensional space.
The film has generated some nice reviews and attention. It’s been interesting for me, since my usual output—long pieces of magazine writing—never gets formally reviewed, instead disappearing into the great digital news pit. I’m not used to critical feedback in the public sphere. Here’s what the sphere is saying:
Foreign Policy: "Reeducated is as haunting as it is artistically impressive. The film’s detailed black and white ink illustrations, hand-drawn by artist Matt Huynh, are intricate and gorgeous, and lace together a poignant, heartbreaking depiction of the narrators’ experiences. ... It's impossible to look away."
IndieWire: "a haunting, lyrical representation ... Reeducated seems like an obvious frontrunner for the Emmy in Outstanding Interactive Program; the medium injects immediacy into stories of persecution that might otherwise seem tragic but remote."
SXSW Virtual Cinema Judges: "Reeducated offers a glimpse into a horrifying world obscured from public view. ... It’s a striking piece of 360 cinema that makes a clear argument for the unique affordances of immersive formats for telling stories.”
XRMagazine: "This is a work of true journalism -- the kind of journalism that can make a difference and change you at your core. ... It is also a beautiful piece of art, both as an interactive feature and as a VR film."
There’s been some other coverage, too, including a crazy VRChat panel discussion at a virtual SXSW auditorium and a marathon Clubhouse event. I went on A Good Refugee Podcast, hosted by Gelek Badheytsang and Tsering Yangzom. I even recorded a groggy video interview for a morning TV show in Kazakhstan. It’s been strange to recieve so much media attention from the comfort of my living room.
Both the film and interactive article have also driven a remarkable amount of traffic and new subscribers to The New Yorker, according to a recent story published in AdWeek. That’s good news, given the size and cost of its production. I’m grateful to the magazine for taking a chance on this project — it is the most technically ambitious story the magazine has ever produced — and I very much liked and admired the editors, designers, and directors I worked with. In particular, the editing, fact-checking, and publishing pipeline was second-to-none, and I always felt like my reporting was in safe hands. At the same time, I have some critical thoughts on this kind of celebratory numbers-first media coverage and its mystifying relationship to the labor that goes into making these publications — involving both freelancers like me and non-managerial staffers like fact-checkers and copy-editors, both of which groups are underpaid and undersupported as a rule — but I’ll have to save them for another newsletter. Suffice to say, neither the traditional model nor the new, no-editing-no-factchecking-just-ranting Substack model seems able to ethnically produce this kind of big-ticket journalism without compromising quality, accuracy, or fair compensation.
Behind the Reporting: Part 1
More than a year ago, in December, 2019, I flew from Berlin, where I live, to Almaty, a city in southeastern Kazakhstan near the Chinese border.
It was my fourth trip to the region. Since 2018, I have travelled across eastern Kazakhstan, visiting families with close connections to Xinjiang and meeting a dozen ex-detainees of extrajudicial camps, part of a network of sites that comprise what is thought to be the largest internment of ethnic and religious minorities since the Second World War. Along the way, I interviewed dozens of other people whose family members have been imprisoned or disappeared.
My first trip, in the summer of 2018, was for the New York Times. I wasn’t there to report on Xinjiang. My subject was the Belt and Road, a cephalopodic infrastructure and trade mega-project centered, in a vague sense, around a remote dry port at the Chinese-Kazakh border. But I was struck during my reporting by how large and ominous state oppression in Xinjiang loomed over the Kazakh and Uyghur interviewees for that story. Some could talk of nothing else; others were too afraid to say anything about China at all. (Kazakhstan’s government has tried to quell the current of Sinophobia that runs persistently among some residents; there are still, occasionally, riots and violently suppressed protests in response to perceived encroachment by Chinese state-owned enterprises, especially in the oil and gas industries, and more recently in response to the disappearance of relatives in Xinjiang.)
From the stories of detention and disappearance — and in some cases, from the nervous silence questions about China engendered — I realized there was a larger story here than the one I’d come to tell. I included in my Times story a report of the trial I attended of a Kazakh asylum seeker, an early whistleblower who claimed to have taught inside one of the secret camps in Xinjiang. Then, over the next year, I visited twice more to interview other ex-detainees and family members of the detained and disappeared—dozens of them in all. Each story was different. Each story was the same.
One of my more memorable interviewees was a former detainee named Orynbek Koksebek, whom I met in August, 2018. Koksebek had spent four months in two detention camps in Tacheng. In the private back room of a closed roadside cafe, Koksebek spoke with me for two hours, mentioning the names of some of the men he had met while detained. A year later, in September, 2019, with the help of the Xinjiang Victims Database, I learned that two of Koksebek’s fellow-prisoners had also returned to Kazakhstan.
Although nearly fifty former prisoners have gone on the record about detention in Xinjiang, they likely represent only a small fraction of those who have managed to flee China. Many ex-detainees are afraid of repercussions for family members still living in Xinjiang; others fear for their own safety. To my knowledge, when I contacted Koksebek’s former campmates that fall, no one had ever published multiple eyewitness reports from the same facility.
That was the first novelty of our project, and it was enough to merit a novel approach to telling their story. When I visited Koksebek and his fellow former inmates in December, 2019, I was accompanied by Huynh, who would create immersive artwork for the article and film, and Wolson, an immersive director whose past V.R. documentary subjects include the war in Sudan and the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. We agreed that, as with those projects, an immersive film could help viewers understand what was happening in Xinjiang by bringing them into an otherwise inaccessible world.
Over ten days, the three of us met with our sources clandestinely, in hotels and private homes. Squeezed into small rooms with our microphones, we made dozens of hours of audio recordings — and, in Huynh’s case, hundreds of sketches of interviewees, as well as detention-camp floor plans and maps. We covered every conceivable detail of life in detention, then covered them again for the sake of redundancy. Back home, my interview transcriptions ran to 60,000 words.
This project was harrowing for our subjects and merely challenging for us. It involved solving unique technical and narrative challenges working in virtual reality, which I’ll discuss next time, not to mention the usual hurdles of foreign reporting (snowstorms, visas). By way of explaining some of these difficulties, particularly those that came up in Kazakhstan, The New Yorker produced a short behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Reeducated.
It was fun to have some of our photos and videos reused for this BTS feature, but I have to admit I don’t feel comfortable in front of a camera, especially talking about my writing. I tend to think it shows. My hat is off to any writer who performs well under hot lights.
“Behind the Reporting: Part 2,” about writing, drawing, animating, and composing soundscapes in virtual reality, is now available here.
A Few Words about Reporting on Xinjiang
I have spent the past three years reporting sporadically on the struggles of ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang — a place many residents call East Turkestan — because I feel personally compelled to do so. None of these stories were assigned to me; editors are not clamoring for coverage of this issue, no matter what some pro-CCP critics believe. I developed and pitched each one myself, as a freelancer, and sold the project to an editor by making an argument for its abiding importance. (In the case of The New Yorker, Wolson and I developed a pitch we brought to the magazine’s editors together.)
Each story has been difficult and, to varying degrees, life-consuming. Sometimes I think to myself that there are other subjects I would rather write about, and many other kinds of writing I would like to be doing: more stylistically interesting and experimental, more essayistic, less doggedly journalistic and fact-bound.
But I keep pitching and writing these stories because they tell an urgent story about human rights and self-determination among Central Asian populations that are still little-known and little-understood outside the region, particularly Uyghurs and Kazakhs. The urgency comes from the powerful forces at work trying to silence these men and women who are witnesses to the rise of a neo-totalitarian state for which no meaningful justification has been offered. The normative cultural and religious practices of these witnesses have been criminalized; in some cases, they may be at risk of extinction. Their voices are being actively and brutally silenced, not only inside China but in other countries with large Turkic populations — including Kazakhstan and Turkey — where Xinjiang-related activism remains dangerous.
When I first visited the region, in 2018, there were only a few international news reports about extrajudicial internment, reeducation, or coerced labor in Xinjiang. It seemed important to me at the time to work to rectify that; naively, I did not anticipate how divisive such news would soon appear. As the crisis has become more public, and as news of various escalating horrors has come out of the region, minorities in Xinjiang have figured as a geopolitical totem on both sides of the growing divide between the world’s only imperial superpower, the United States, and its rising economic powerhouse, China. The arrival of disinformation campaigns, state propaganda efforts, and fake or poorly sourced media on both sides of this divide makes accurate, careful reporting all the more important.
At the same time, it became increasingly difficult, and finally impossible, to report freely within Xinjiang. The types of carceral spaces we focus on in the film, inside an extrajudicial detention camp, are therefore largely undocumented. The description of these spaces by men who experienced them are inherently dramatic, a fact we used to develop the film’s structure and momentum. The prospect of recreating these spaces and staging our sources’ stories inside them is how we sold The New Yorker on the importance of virtual reality, despite the difficulty and expense involved.
In the corresponding article, I sought to produce a story that would give readers a panoramic understanding of life in Xinjiang as well as its political and cultural history going back several decades, based largely on primary sources like eyewitnesses and Chinese government documents—a “deep dive” that could inject into a poisoned discourse some nuance and understanding concerning the lived experiences of “normal,” largely undistinguished people in Xinjiang: a truck driver, two retired teachers, a nurse, a hairdresser, a herder, a businessman. They are the sorts of people who are rarely the subjects of magazine stories, and their experiences seemed to be demonstrative of the huge and disturbing changes taking place in Xinjiang since 2016.
Whatever the politics involved, I feel strongly that journalists cannot afford to turn away from stories that are at risk of vanishing beneath the “official” Chinese government history of the region. For this reason alone, the reality of life in Xinjiang — described by the voices of residents beyond the immediate reach of Chinese authorities — is worth recording and amplifying to a general audience.
In this new column, writers I admire recommend books to me—and you.
Our recommender this month is Evan James, a gleeful, wide-ranging, brilliant writer who is also a friend and teacher based in New York. Evan is the author of the novel Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe and the essay collection I’ve Been Wrong Before. Both are highly recommended. His latest ventures are “Shiftless,” a newsletter of personal essays, and “The Remembered Life Writing Lab,” an open-ended creative writing class. I subscribed to both right away and I’ve been impressed by the combination of essay, diary, writing exercises, audio recordings (there’s even a subscribers-only advice podcast), and visual materials. It is simply cornucopian.
Over the years, Evan has introduced me to many writers and artists I hold dear; his recommendations are always golden. Evan writes:
In 2020, I started reading more Chinese literature and books about Chinese history. One of the most memorable and mind-expanding reading experiences for me was The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980 by the historian Jonathan D. Spence. It’s written with great energy and nuance and foregrounds “writers, historians, philosophers, and insurrectionists” whose lives and works were shaped by the turbulent events of the century. I learned a lot from it. I also love books that lead me to other books, and Spence guided me to several writers who were new to me. I was grateful to be led to the fiction of Lu Xun, for instance, whose stories I also recommend.
Thanks, Evan. Thanks for reading my newsletter, which this month was unusually self-promoting. Next time, I’ll dial it down. Please like/share/subscribe as you see fit.