If you’re going to make the first-ever virtual-reality movie filmed inside a war zone, you might as well do it in the most dangerous city on the planet. So that’s exactly where 20-year-old Christian Stephen went.

Welcome to Aleppo, released last month by the news site RYOT, features a 360-degree-view of Syria’s largest city—one of the oldest in the world—as it stands today, in chaos and rubble. Viewers can hear muezzins’ calls to prayer echoing through the streets, mixed with the percussive sounds of war. But what is most striking is what you don’t see: people. The footage immediately asks the viewer to reckon with Aleppo’s virtual emptiness, a reminder of the 4.1 million displaced Syrians waiting in refugee camps or flooding across Middle Eastern and European borders to any nation willing to help (and, increasingly, to the unwilling ones as well).

Much has been made about the role VR has begun to play in entertainment and filmmaking, but less explored is its potential for hard-hitting news, especially conflict reporting. More and more, reporters are turning to VR to capture people’s attention, and the platform is quickly moving from novelty to necessity. With Kaleidoscope, the first ever VR film festival, taking place in San Francisco tonight, the public will get to see how indie filmmakers are using the medium in unconventional ways.

The RYOT Act

Based in Venice Beach, California, RYOT has multiple VR projects being screened at Kaleidoscope, and has future projects lined up in a dozen more countries. “You are going to see a lot of people getting into VR because they don’t want to be left out, and then there are people that think it will change the world,” says COO Molly Swenson. “We are squarely in that latter category.”

As Swenson describes it, the goal of RYOT when they launched three years earlier was to be the first breaking news site that links its readers to specific actions. For example, if the site showcases a breathtaking scene of dolphins swimming in the ocean, it simultaneously directs its audience to a site detailing how to help save endangered species; or, as happened recently, footage of the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake prompts the viewer to donate to relief efforts.

The RYOT team, Swenson says, seeks to accomplish two goals: to be an “antidote to the helplessness” often felt by viewers upon seeing horrifying news footage, and to contextualize the work that nonprofits do after the cameras leave.

Welcome to Aleppo is RYOT’s most successful film to date, and comes as coverage about the Syrian conflict is dwindling: The majority of reporting on the Syrian civil war has shifted out of the country itself and toward the refugee crisis and (largely) Europe’s response to it. This is partially due to logistical limitations. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, dozens of journalists have been killed while on assignment in Syria since the conflict began. In fact, Christian Stephen tells me, Japanese journalist Jumpei Yasuda is believed to have been kidnapped in northern Syria the day before Stephen’s arrival.

Christian Stephen.Christian Stephen. RYOT

Fortunately for him, Stephen was able to safely enter and exit Syria for this assignment, but that outcome wasn’t always a given. “We spent about nine hours on the first day being hunted—and I mean that literally—by rebel fighters,” he says. “We had to focus on staying alive to capture the footage, and then it’s about making sure you’re capturing something that’s worth the danger; it has to be something that’s visually powerful.”

Traditional news organizations, for the most part, aren’t sending reporters to Syria anymore. The risks are too high. Aleppo in particular is an incredibly dangerous area, with many factions fighting over the city. A rogue reporter carrying unfamiliar equipment that may resemble a bomb is going to attract the wrong kind of attention. “You have to ask yourself, is this worth getting killed for?” he says “Because once you enter the city limits of Aleppo, you have to pretend that you’re dead already.”

In fact, Stephen is “banned for life” from Turkey, he says, where he travelled following his assignment in Aleppo; security officials had no idea what his VR equipment was or how to use it, concluding that it was nefarious.

To address some of these mobile safety concerns, RYOT provides each reporter with a travelling news band kit, complete with a GoPro, iPhone 6 Plus and editing apps, hard case, wide-angle lens, bendable microphone, a short selfie stick, and cloud storage. The ultimate goal, Swenson tells me, is to have a VR camera in every kit. This allows reporters to move easily in dangerous locations, able to create and publish content on a single smartphone.

With Syrian refugees pouring further into Europe to seek asylum and citizens of countries such as Germany and Hungary starting to demand accountability from their governments to do something, images like that of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lifeless on Turkish beach, or, a crying father selling pens on the street while his young daughter sleeps on his shoulder, have an enormous impact on the ordinary viewer. War photography has always had the power to elicit empathy. So too, does VR footage, but it also has something unique at its disposal: The immersive autonomy it gives the viewer, whose cinéma vérité experience is theirs and theirs alone. Welcome to Aleppo is so powerful, Stephen insists, because it gives the viewer “haunting, eerie silence”.

Beyond that, though, VR reporting provides a necessary antidote to what Stephen sees as a dearth of coverage. “There is an absolute deafening apathy of stories,” he says. “It’s not just about encouraging empathy; it’s about encouraging what comes out of empathy, what happens afterward. If it inspires a conversation, then I’ve done my job.”

With a million more Syrians expected to be displaced by the year’s end, that conversation couldn’t be more urgent.

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World’s First VR Film Festival Takes You to a Real War Zone