In December 2019, reporter Ben Mauk, film director Sam Wolson, and artist Matt Huynh flew to Kazakhstan to interview three men who were imprisoned together in Xinjiang—Erbaqyt Otarbai, Orynbek Koksebek, and Amanzhan Seituly. Their accounts of the time they spent in detention informed the immersive investigation Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State and the accompanying virtual-reality documentary, Reeducated.
The Pulitzer Center-supported project, Survival in Xinjiang, reveals the scope of China's campaign of persecution against ethnic and religious minorities. In the spring of 2017, authorities in Xinjiang began detaining thousands of Uighurs and other Turkic and Muslim people in secret camps. Some of them are sentenced to long prison terms or forcibly transferred to factories and farms across China.
Reeducated premiered at South by Southwest on March 16 and won a special jury recognition for immersive journalism at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival Jury Awards.
“It’s a striking piece of 360 cinema that makes a clear argument for the unique affordances of immersive formats for telling stories, establishing a powerful logic and vocabulary through the use of composition, scale, pace, and perspective,” the jury commented about the project.
“We went through many drafts of these environments. It was hard to convey why we needed to be so journalistically accurate about, like, were you handcuffed to another person, or just to yourself, and was it in front of your body or behind?” Mauk said in a Variety write-up on the project. “Maybe we went a little overboard, but I think the fact that we were really paying attention to the details and checked every little thing so we can say ‘this is definitely what it was like’ does come through in the film and the confidence of these spaces.”
It was through this painstaking attention to detail in reporting, survivor sketches, and satellite photos that the virtual-reality film could reconstruct the men’s shared experiences in an immersive three-dimensional space.
“Many reports have documented the atrocities perpetrated in the camps, but few give insight into the conditions inside—and none through the eyes of those who have experienced it firsthand. This is the brilliance—and horror—of Reeducated,” Foreign Policy’s Christina Lu wrote of the investigation.
“This is a work of true journalism—the kind of journalism that can make a difference and change you at your core,” XRMust contributor Agnese Pietrobon wrote. “[Reeducated] is also a beautiful piece of art, both as an interactive feature and as a VR film.”
Artist Matt Huynh spoke to the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism Founding Director Marisa Mazria Katz about the role visual artists can play in journalism, and how art can be integrated into investigative reporting about difficult topics.
“It’s difficult to entice an audience to engage with a disturbing reality,” he said in the interview. “A visual artist’s contribution should be careful not to aestheticize or glorify a horrific subject. It should give the viewer a language to make sense of a story that could otherwise feel overwhelming and repulsive.”
The reporting was also featured in newsletters from Politico and SupChina, in a roundup from WhoWhatWhy, and was listed as a source in a report from the Council on Foreign Relations, “China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.”
As this intense & vital @NewYorker investigation reveals, an internal Xinjiang government report from the height of the Uighur internment drive stated that “all that’s left in the homes are the elderly, weak women, and children.”— Samantha Power (@SamanthaJPower) February 26, 2021
"Inside Xinjiang's Prison State": https://t.co/ykyIAREYXn