We have been invited to present The Choice for the Polish Sociological Association. Joanne-Aśka Popińska will talk about why she decided to work on such a controversial subject as abortion, and why she chose VR as a medium to tell these thought-provoking stories. She will describe how she is using space and interactive narrative to immerse the audience in the story, and how she is designing the user’s role, to make them an active participant. As a sociologist herself, she is using proximity and physical relations in space (social distance) to create a feeling of being present with another person.

Link to the event: https://www.facebook.com/events/3708501922537445

Virtual Reality is a fascinating medium, often associated with games, business solutions, or education. In our work, we use VR to raise awareness about important social issues: reproductive rights, violence against women, climate change. In our recent project, The Choice, we invite the audience to have a personal conversation with women who had an abortion. They share various reasons why they decided to terminate the pregnancy, and the viewer is encouraged to ask them direct and in-depth questions. We believe that personal conversation is the key to create a real and long-lasting change. And that it can create a social impact.

It’s truly remarkable to see that our work is being recognized. We have been invited to many events and were interviewed by numerous media to talk about our unique approach to VR storytelling. This time, we have been invited to talk about The Choice with a very special group: sociologists. Why special? As documentarians, we see how sociology and documentary often share the same interests and curiosity about similar issues. What’s usually different, is the methods they use. It is a great pleasure to know that what we do, is interesting from the sociological perspective as well.

Joanne-Aśka Popińska has been invited by the Polish Sociological Association, to talk about The Choice and how she is using VR to create social impact.

In recent months, Poland has been struck by an unstoppable wave of women’s protests. In the fall of 2020, Polish Constitutional Tribunal has banned abortion in almost all situations. We wrote about it here: Poland just banned abortion. Since then, Polish women have been protesting without a break. Police have been trying to crush the protesters with beatings, gas, and arresting even teenagers for “civic disobedience”.

In the light of these events, Popińska has been invited to talk about her work and how she is using VR to ignite a conversation, with the goal of bringing people together. Can VR enhance mutual understanding? And can creating this virtual dialogue be an answer?

Popińska will share why she chose VR for such a controversial topic, and how she is using its fundamental features to immerse the audience in these conversations.

Being a sociologist herself, Popińska believes that personal conversation is the best way to address stereotypes. Meeting real people, hearing their testimonies, feeling their emotions is powerful, as it creates a very personal connection. And this connection can bring change in attitudes and behaviors.

Popińska is using VR to make this conversation possible. In The Choice, she introduces women who had an abortion, and through an interactive narrative, she immerses the audience in this dialogue as if it really happened. When the experience finishes, the audience has a very profound impression of really talking to the subjects. They feel as they have met these women in person, they talked to them, they sensed their emotions and their thoughts. It creates a very personal and intimate bond. And it makes the issue personal — to the viewer.

Popińska’s ultimate goal is to not only take a stance on reproductive rights but to show that the conversation is an answer. Today’s world is full of antagonisms and misunderstandings. Appeals and speeches seem not to change it, the conflicts are only being ignited. Is a simple, personal conversation an answer? Early presentations of The Choice are showing very promising results.

On Thursday the Polish Constitutional court banned abortion in Poland. Some people say that it didn’t really happen, as the current tribunal is not truly legal - so its ruling does not count (more on that - below). I don’t think that matters though: the current government, president, and parliament treat this tribunal as legal. They have, after all, selected the judges - that’s a whole nother story I will explain later.

What I want you to see now is how scary this situation is. And that it does affect you.

The new reality in Poland means that we are now a country where abortion is pretty much impossible to get for any reason.

Poland bans abortion, women protest on the streets.

The most horrifying part of this ruling is the reason why it was made. Or rather: the word they are all using to describe it. They say that they have prevented “eugenics”. Wait, what? Yes, eugenics.

What is eugenics? It’s a highly controversial, if not very unethical belief system and practice that aims to improve the genetic quality of the human population. Selective breeding. It’s based on the belief that some groups of people are superior, and that those carrying the “worse genes” should be removed from the population.

Until this week, abortion in Poland was already highly restricted. Poland had one of the most restrictive laws for terminating pregnancies. We called it “a compromise”. A compromise between a state and church - yes, literally. This “compromise” was agreed on in 1993, and it allowed for abortion in 3 situations:

  1. in cases of serious threat to the life or health of the pregnant woman, as attested by two physicians,

  2. cases of rape or incest confirmed by a prosecutor,

  3. and cases in which prenatal tests, confirmed by two physicians, demonstrated that the fetus was seriously and irreversibly damaged.

Condition #3 was just removed. And they called it “eugenics”. I have no words for how disgusting it is.

In 2016 I started working on The Choice. Why 2016? This is when the current government started its crusade. Crusade they have finally won. In 2016 they proposed legislation to outlaw abortion, and 30,000 women protested. They marched in cities dressed in black - we called it Black Protest. It worked -- the lawmakers voted against the proposed law.

Now, what changed in 2020?

In 2016 it was the government and parliament who tried to ban abortion. Today - they used the Constitutional Court. A court that not everybody agrees has a right to be ruling at all. There is quite a big controversy around that, you can read more here.

And now - this illegitimate court ruled on an extremely controversial decision. So controversial that even people who are usually opponents of reproductive rights -- fully agree that this ruling is horrific. The wording around it is only one horrible aspect. But then -- how about the timing?

We are in the middle of the pandemic. Worldwide, the situation is highly alarming. Poland is one of the countries with the highest number of infected people. We are reaching 16,000 cases per day. The government is preparing for another lockdown, and people are not allowed to gather. This is of course understandable and very much needed to flatten the curve again. But looking from a perspective of the recent years: with taking over the Constitutional Court -- people went on the streets to protest. With the 2016 tries for banning abortion -- people went on the streets to protest. On various other occasions -- for the last 4 years, Polish people went on the streets to protest. And now -- how are they supposed to protest?

This is what the government is counting on, I have no doubts: they hope that some people will stay at home, afraid of the virus. And rightfully so. They also now can use the tools that they would not be allowed to use freely -- if not the pandemic. They can order quarantine. They can order fines. They can say people are dangerous -- even if they simply march peacefully.

But people will protest again. They have already started. I am very proud of those who have the courage to go there and shout. I’ve heard that some of them have already been arrested. The police are treating these protestors as the enemy and using tear gas on them.

Poland banned abortion, women protest, police is using tear gas.

I am deeply upset. While working on The Choice, I have learned a lot about abortions obtained for medical reasons, often later in pregnancy. The story we are working on releasing now - is such a story. You know her already, it’s Kristen. Her interview was the most heartbreaking and emotional that I ever had. I’ve spent the recent months, going through every detail Kristen shared with me -- and it was impossible for me to even talk to my spouse when I was working on it, her story was hitting me that hard. And who am I? I just recorded it, I have never lived through it…

I cannot imagine the pain inflicted now on Polish women.

The scariest thing is how hard it will be to go back even to this “compromise” we had until now. It is not a bill that another government or parliament can simply change. To revoke this one -- we will need a completely new Constitutional Court.

This is where I would love to end - but I can’t. Poland is a small country. We do not have much influence on what’s happening globally. Yes, the situation there is upsetting, but truly, does it matter, and hey - what can we do other than nod our heads with sadness?

Well, you can do something. You can move your butt and vote. Yes, vote in the US elections. Vote in whichever country you live in.

The threat of revoking Roe v. Wade in the US is becoming alarmingly real. I don’t have to explain it here, everyone here probably knows that very well.

Yet many of us think that our votes do not really matter. What can this one vote change? Does it really affect your life? I hope that now you can see - that it truly does.

Vote. You can do this one, extremely important thing.

*Pictures taken from various Polish news websites.

Last week we were presenting updates on The Choice at the Vancouver International Film Festival - VIFF Immersed Volumetric Market. This event was organized together with the Kaleidoscope Fund.

This year's event brought back some of the projects that were pitching at VIFF 2019 so they could share how much progress they did since 2019. We shared our progress too, and it was truly enlightening to realize how much work we have done! Those recent months were truly busy for us, we've been doing amazing progress.

Below you can read a little bit deeper about what has changed and how we've progressed.

In early 2020 Jay W. Moore has joined as, just in time to help us through this very crazy and stressful trip to Austin, Texas. Do you remember? We were supposed to be there for almost 2 weeks and film a whole set of interviews. And then the COVID-19 pandemic started unfolding, and we found ourselves far from home, with the flights being canceled asap, and we had literally 2 days to leave the country. And we still needed to film some interviews... And we did! It was truly awesome, and the two interviews we have captured are extremely powerful, each for very different reasons.

Moving forward - in spring 2020 our team got even bigger, this is when Becca Little and Hannah Estes have joined us to work on the VR app development. I will not dive into the technical details here, let me just tell you: it's a true blessing to have them on board!

In May we received 2 grants from the Kaleidoscope community, winning in the Creative Challenge and the Femme Futures categories. This was amazing! And with that, we received a lot, a lot of wonderful messages from people stating how important The Choice is, and how powerful is what we aim to achieve using the VR technology to enhancing empathy. Thank you!

With these grants, we also got some truly great consultants: Asad J. Malik, Darragh Dandurand, and Paul Mezier. So now with every new edit or some milestone we achieve - we call them and hear their feedback and advice on our next steps. It's truly great to have their expertise.

The next step was... Well, there were a couple of next steps. Tom, Becca, and Hannah have been working on what I call with some umbrella-term: "app dev". Later on, we will have some blog posts explaining what their process has been. It's more technical, so we will probably put it on our company's blog here: Tribe Of Pan.

For me, I could finally start editing the recent interviews. I started with a story about medical abortion, an abortion performed for health-related reasons. Not many of us expect to hear stories like that when thinking about abortion. The pregnancy was planned, and the couple was waiting to have a baby -- picking names, toys, making the baby-room ready. They were even preparing for the baby shower. And then they were literally hit with some information about fetal abnormalities. Not one, multiple.

Very emotional, very powerful story. And a wonderful interviewee. But I will not reveal too much yet, I want you all to hear this story when it will be ready for you to watch.

With working on this interview, we also dived into creating a branching narrative. The Choice will invite the audience to have a conversation with women who had an abortion. To create this feeling of talking to someone, we are creating some dialogue elements: you will see some questions, select one of them, and the storyteller will then answer.

We have also started working on illustrations. The Choice takes place in a dark void -- so the distractions are blocked, you are not thinking about the outside world. We want the audience to focus their attention on the storyteller.

So why the illustrations? Let me quote Zoe Roellin, our VR artist:

"I have been brought on board to create illustrations that appear in the black space around the interviewees, both visualizing specific scenes from their stories and conveying the complex emotions they faced on their journey. In creating those illustrations, I am seeking a delicate balance between illustrating the stories told without overshadowing the words of the interviewees by using a flowing, sometimes abstract style. My intention is to build a strong sense of atmosphere and create scenes evocative enough to invite the viewer to take in those images but also think past them, and use their own imagination to connect with the stories told." Zoe has already started working on the concept, and it is truly beautiful.

That's all with the catching up. Since those 2 weeks when I gave the presentation -- we have done even bigger progress! Wow! Truly a great time for us! So many things happening! I am truly excited!

But I will tell you more - next time ;)

- Joanne