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Empathy Machines: Queer Youth Cinema in Virtual Reality by Andrew Scahill

by Ethan Tussey

In the memoir documentary Life Itself, Roger Ebert lauds cinema as “a machine that generates empathy,” a technology that allows us to temporarily escape the confines of our body and experience to identify with someone unlike ourselves.

In 2014, 20 year-old Daniel Ashley Pierce was subject to a violent “religious intervention” when his family confronted him over his sexuality. The confrontation turned to assault as they called him a “damned queer” and “a piece of shit” and began to physically attack him. He recorded the attack on his cell phone and uploaded it to YouTube, where it went viral, having now been watched by nearly 9 million viewers.

The story could have ended there. A few years later, though, “immersive journalism” filmmaker Nonny de la Peña came across Daniel’s YouTube video and began work on a virtual reality film that places participants within a 3D environment of the conflict. The result is Out of Exile: Daniel’s Story, which premiered to widespread acclaim at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Out of Exile does more than tell a story: it is a raw, interactive experience of emotional realism. This is Freud’s “A Child is Being Beaten” writ large, as participants are pluripositioned within the traumatic incident as both victim and third-party observer. Note the reactions from participants at the computer graphics conference SIGRAPH, which detail an uncanny mixture of anger, paralysis, and hope. Out of Exile manages to harness the full potential of cinema as an immersive technology that generates deep and embodied sympathy for its subjects.

In the latest Cinema Journal, I discussed the role of queer film festivals as a creative safe space for LGBT youth. But what of digital empathies for queer youth? Digital communication is often characterized as cold and unfeeling, yet we forget that “digital” (from the Latin digitalis) is a linguistic cognate with “digits,” or fingers. For millennial queer youth, the internet is often a place to find community--thus the “digital” can also be about about touch and emotion. Indeed, after Daniel’s original video went viral, a GoFundMe page raised nearly $100,000 in support from complete strangers. With Out of Exile: Daniel’s Story, De la Peña uses virtual reality to chart new territory for the digital as a feeling technology that generates real and visceral emotional connectivities.

Out of Exile: Daniel's Story

When Daniel Ashley Pierce is confronted about his sexual orientation by his family in a “religious intervention,” the scene turns dramatic and violent. 'Out of Exile' recreates the event using video captured by Daniel at the time.

from Out of Exile: Daniel's Story (2017)
Creator: Nonny de la Pena
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey