Watching Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s virtual reality documentary series Look But With Love is no ordinary experience. It is akin to being inside the frame, standing right next to the characters, almost feeling like you can feel the landscape and observe them up close as they tell their inspiring stories, at the heart of each film. It is a profound, rare experience and the word immersive has never held more meaning than in this context.
The five-part series, screened at Karachi’s recently opened Wired Inn VR café last month, drew a small but curious crowd including a number of mass communication students.
Since releasing in 2017, it has been premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in New York, the Karachi Biennale and the Karachi Literature Festival in the city by the sea, across various schools and colleges in Pakistan and other local and international spaces.
Directed by two-time Academy Award winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and presented by WITHIN, it takes us to various parts of Pakistan such as Jamshoro to Nowshera to Lahore to explore the lives of the unsung heroes, who do extraordinary things including “a doctor in the slums of Karachi who has dedicated his life to providing free emergency care to children, to a courageous community of women in Nowshera, the epicenter of the terrorist insurgency,” one narrative at a time.
In a climate that is far too negative and where horrible stories such as child abuse and rape, honour killings and patriarchy, religious extremism, social conservatism and political mudslinging from national leaders against one another continue to take up so much of our daily lives through mainstream news and social media, here is a series that reminds us of the good amidst the bad and the light against the darkness.
Of the five films screened, I managed to see the one on music that took me to Jamshoro to explore the extraordinary man that is Saif Samejo, the force behind Lahooti Melo, the music group Sketches and Lahooti Live.
While watching this short docu series, I visited Saif’s home studio and learned about his deep love and admiration for Sufi music, stories of elders and shrines that made up his early life and how he works to preserve regional music that is passed on by generations. I heard him interact with other regional musicians, and learned about their beautiful stories and beginnings; I visited the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and felt the spirituality that is both inherent to Saif as he listened to another regional group of musicians playing at the shrine and yearned for the serenity that disappeared the minute the film ended.
Like many things at which she has been a first, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s series, Look but with Love, is Pakistan’s first virtual reality series. And though on the surface it may seem like another film, the amount of effort and challenges that she and her team overcame in achieving this first is just as important a story.
At the screening event, we spoke to several representatives of SOC Films, including Umme-Hani Imani (outreach coordinator), Syed Mohammad Ayub (co-producer) and Nadir Siddiqui (First Camera Assistant on the series and Cinematographer at SOC Films).
Discussing with Instep the purpose of making such a series that is uplifting and beautifully positive in a time of great confusion and anxiety, Umme Hani told Instep: “We chose the title ‘Look But With Love’ because it’s a very common saying in Pakistan. The purpose behind it is to actually redirect the focus on Pakistan. When you think about Pakistan and its contemporary challenges, there’s often a lot of frustration and a little bit of negativity that comes into play. The problems include the way we view our culture and heritage and how that has gotten skewed in the past couple of decades, rising extremism, terrorist insurgency, violence and much more. So, the idea is to make people think about Pakistan and look at Pakistan from a different angle.”
She added further: “There are people working on the ground to change the reality and that’s the focus of these films. One is a story about water; one’s a story about a doctor; one’s story about women, a story about music and a story about dance.
We have five films and the point of them is to look at the development sector, to think about our cultural heritage and how we engage with it in the present, to think about some of the contemporary challenges that come from natural causes but are not being dealt with, what people on the ground are doing to engage communities, what civic participation in this country looks like, perhaps to make people think about what it should look like. If we are frustrated with ourselves, are we thinking about how we want to solve those problems? We do sometimes feel like we can’t make a dent but there are actually people who are making a difference, taking on the challenges and they are trying to shatter stereotypes. Even by doing this project we are actually trying to shatter stereotypes that people have within Pakistan about their own country and when we go internationally to make people realise that Pakistan is not monolithic, our problems also don’t look the same, there’s a diversity of issues that we face and our regional circumstances, the social strata we belong to, the occupation we’re in, everyone faces different challenges and how the larger issues affect different people in different ways and how those people deal with those problems.”
Expanding on the technical process and the challenges that come with shooting a virtual reality film series for the first time, Co-Producer Syed Mohd. Ayub noted, “It is an immersive medium, it allows you to be at the location, to be with those characters. We collaborated with a company that could produce VR and WITHIN is a huge company in the US, it does VR on big-scale. We collaborated with them. We went all over Pakistan to find these stories. It’s about the heroes you don’t hear about and VR gives you the sense of being there more than anything else.”
Nadir Siddiqui (First Camera Assistant on this VR series and a cinematographer at SOC Films) while discussing the technical challenges and firsts told Instep: “The cameraman, in a normal film, can stand behind and see it. With VR, as a cinematographer you can’t be in the frame. When you shoot VR, you have to shoot in 360 degrees angle because you want to get the entire environment, you have to essentially shoot a sphere. There are many ways to do that. What we did was we took four AC2S cameras that are like SLR cameras but without mirrors. They’re like DSLRs, almost and they are back to back, kept at 90 degrees to each other so they film all sides using wide lenses and then that’s stitched together and forms one image.
That was the biggest challenge where we had to find a wireless connection from the camera itself to where we couldn’t be in the frame. The director couldn’t be in the frame so we learned how to not be in the frame. The sound is recorded from the ambient noise and ambient sound. We use collar mics because you can’t have any equipment showing in shots.”
As for the narrative, said Nadir, “In VR, you’re doing something very profound to your audience. If you do your job well, you can cast a spell. It’s like being there.”
– The complete five-part documentary series is available on the app, Within.