In How ‘Reeducated’ Was Made, The New Yorker offers a behind-the-scenes look into the painstaking process that created a virtual-reality film exposing the horrors of Xinjiang prison camps used by the Chinese government to control and propagandize nearly a million Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other predominantly Muslim minorities in recent years.
When reporter Ben Mauk realized he knew of three men living in Kazakhstan who had been imprisoned at the same camp during the same time period, he reached out to director Sam Wolson. In December 2019, Mauk, Wolson, and artist Matt Huynh traveled to Armadi, Kazakhstan, to document the men’s experiences.
Many survivors of the Xinjiang camps are reluctant to speak about what they went through, let alone do so on the record, fearing that they may endanger family members still in China. Concerned about safety and privacy, the team spent long hours conducting interviews in cramped hotel rooms to avoid arousing the suspicion of Kazakh authorities.
During these interviews, the survivors talked for hours describing their daily routines in the prison camp, the torture they endured, and the propaganda that was forced on them. Afterward, Huynh followed up with questions like, “What did the chairs look like?” and “How far away were the beds from each other?”
“These were all details that were crucial to building this world with an art style where you can see the human hand in every brushstroke,” Mauk said. “We took huge effort to get down to as granular detail as possible.”
By reconstructing the survivors’ memories—and with the help of several animators—the team was able to create an immersive, three-dimensional experience in the form of a virtual-reality documentary. On March 19, the groundbreaking project was recognized by South by Southwest Film Festival, receiving the Special Jury Recognition for Immersive Journalism in the Virtual Cinema category.