“Container” carries migrants’ journey into virtual realm at IDFA

By Christopher Vourlias of Variety

A harrowing journey across the high seas comes to life in “Container,” an ambitious cross-media project being pitched at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) Forum [last] year.

Directed by Simon Wood and Meghna Singh, “Container” takes a hybrid approach to documenting the experiences of migrants risking everything in search of a better life, presenting their stories through a unique combination of virtual reality and installation art.

Through the metaphor of the shipping containers used to transport millions of tons of cargo each year, the creators wanted to shed light on “the circulation of commodities and people…trapped in modern-day slavery,” says Singh. “The very notion of slavery is when human beings are turned into commodities.”

The project was inspired in part by the fateful journey of the São José Paquete de Africa, a Portuguese slave ship that sunk off the coast of Cape Town in 1794. Discovered decades ago by treasure hunters – who long believed it to be the wreckage of a Dutch merchant ship – the São José’s significance became apparent in 2010, when researchers realized it was being used to transport slaves from Mozambique to Brazil before striking two reefs and sinking to the bottom of the sea.

The wreckage lies in choppy waters not far from Cape Town’s ritzy Clifton beach, and just a few miles from where cranes work ‘round-the-clock to load shipping containers in one of Africa’s busiest ports. For Wood and Singh, the convergence of the modern system of global commerce with the grim remnants of the São José offered an opportunity “to engage [with the slave trade] within the context of how it continues,” says Singh.

At a time when borders are closing, anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, and many continue to risk their lives in search of better opportunities, only to wind up trapped in economic servitude, the project explores the hidden lives of goods and people crisscrossing the globe in those anonymous containers. “There are more slaves now than at any point in human history,” notes Wood, “and our challenge with ‘Container’ is to make the invisible visible.”

“Container” will allow viewers to imagine themselves adrift at sea, risking a perilous crossing inside a shipping container as it begins to fill with water. Once inside the installation, a Vive VR headset will transport them into a virtual space “where you are face to face with a human being who is making this journey,” says Singh. Viewers will also be able to hear migrants’ stories through a blend of documentary and fiction.

The collaboration between Wood, a documentary filmmaker, and Singh, a video installation artist, came about as part of the latest workshop for “New Dimensions,” a pan-African narrative VR collaboration spearheaded by Electric South, a Cape Town-based non-profit focused on producing and distributing new-media content from Africa, along with the Ford Foundation and the Bertha Foundation.

For the duo’s first foray into VR, Singh credits the intense nature of the workshop, which featured long brainstorming sessions with a host of other inspiring African creatives, as well as mentorship from the likes of Jessica Brillhart, formerly of Google; award-winning multimedia filmmaker Oscar Raby; and media technologist and researcher Ainsley Sutherland.

The workshop also enabled Singh and Wood to see the potential beyond a simple 360-degree VR experience, offering them an opportunity to create something more immersive. “It’s not just about putting a headset on,” says Singh. “It has to be something more physical.”

Wood, who has made four documentaries in the past six years, says that the exploration of “a new multi-sensory experience” will allow “Container” to resonate strongly with audiences. “Do you want to sit in a cinema watching a shipping container sink to the bottom of the ocean, or do you want to be in the container?” he says. “Which will last longest in your memory? Which will have the greater effect?”

“Container” is produced by Ingrid Kopp and Steven Markovitz of Electric South, and Wood and Singh of SaltPeter Productions. The project is currently in production and is expected to be completed by mid-2018, with hopes that the installation can debut at IDFA [this] year.

While the ubiquitous shipping containers will make it easy to replicate the installation anywhere in the world, the producers also plan to distribute “Container” as an app, so that viewers will be able to experience the VR video with Samsung Gear headsets or Google Cardboard.

“It is very important for us that people experience what we created in its entirety, but we also don’t want to limit it to an installation set-up,” says Singh. “The idea is for it to reach as far and wide as possible.”

This article was originally published on Variety, under the same title on 16 November 2017. Featured image by SaltPeter Productions.  

About Meghna Singh

Meghna Singh is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cape Town and a research associate at the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University Johannesburg. Hailing from New Delhi (India) Meghna is currently pursuing visual art practice and a research project on the theme of oceanic migrations in South Africa.

Working with mediums of video and installation, blurring boundaries between documentary and fiction, she creates immersive environments highlighting issues of ‘humanism’ through the tool of the imaginary. Her current focus is on the theme of critical mobilities, migration and the invisible class of mobile population that move around the world as a consequence of the capitalist globalized world we inhabit.

Meghna’s blog Our Story in this Ocean: Visualizing Historic and Contemporary Migration at Sea is a visual diary of the ongoing research and visual artwork for the final immersive video installation project expected to finish in July 2017. The blog is also used to document her travels in the four countries where the work is grounded (Mozambique, Cape Town, Lisbon and North Brazil).

Along with the grant from Wellcome Trust, she is also a recipient of a short-term visual arts grant from the Oriental Foundation (Lisbon), and will be based at the Hangar art residency and research institute while engaging with the Department of Comparative Literature (at the University of Lisbon in August-October 2016).