“Fiction movie writers wouldn’t be able to imagine and write about the suffering of the Uighur people.” For fear of being imprisoned, Habibullah escaped China and settled with his family in Turkey. As both a virtual reality (VR) documentary and longform interactive, Living in the Unknown explores the crisis unfolding in China through the eyes of Uighur Muslims who fled persecution at a terrible price: the loss of all contact with their loved ones back home. They reveal their struggle to retain every remaining strand of their identity, and culture, amidst the fear of being erased.
Human rights groups claim that around one million Uighurs and other ethnic minorities are held in ‘concentration camps’ in China’s western province of Xinjiang while the Chinese government says it is fighting separatism and religious extremism in the region, and that the facilities are vocational training centers.
AJ Contrast wanted to highlight the Uighur crisis – one of the worst mass human rights violations in the world – in an accurate, authentic and truthful, but also a creative and innovative way. To ensure the audience invests in the story, we aimed for an informative, visually striking account of Uighurs living in Istanbul. We followed AJ Contrast’s collaborative editorial process, inviting talented young Uighurs to join the project to make sure it represents their community whilst portraying their plight in the most personal and credible way.
Living in the Unknown delves into the stories of Uighur men and women trying to rebuild their lives in Turkey after fleeing persecution and imprisonment in China. Comprising a 9-minute VR documentary and a longform interactive, the project combines original linear footage with 360º video, in-depth interviews, archives, infographics and data visualization. Our strategy was to give viewers the very real sense of what it can be like for Uighurs fleeing state sponsored attempts to erase their identity.
Virtual Reality proved an effective means of immersing viewers into the experience. Created for VR headsets and optimized for desktop and mobile, the VR documentary follows Habibullah, Hatice and Munnawar who invite us into their homes in Istanbul. Viewers are immersed into the everyday lives of the characters by means of a 360º video experience. Graphics in the style of the text messaging service WeChat appear in the virtual 360º space to give contextual information and represent China’s responses to allegations of persecution. We chose this design element because WeChat is the application that most living in China, including Uighurs, depend on to communicate with their families and friends. The messaging interface is a critical aspect of our immersive storytelling design, which we created to demonstrate the Uighurs’ dependence on social media even as state authorities use it in their surveillance against them.
Optimized for the desktop and mobile, the longform interactive offers a wider historical and political context to the unrest in Xinjiang and the conflict between the Chinese government and the Uighurs. The interactive explores the stories of four young women fighting to preserve their Uighur language, family and religion – the three pillars of their identity most under attack. By focusing on this age group, we come to see the existential threat facing future generations of Uighurs.
Reporting on the Uighur issue is complicated, both inside and outside of China. For such an ambitious project, it was essential to put together a production crew that had deep knowledge of or connection to the Uighurs. Uighur writer Abduweli Ayup, who himself spent time in detention in Xinjiang and is familiar with the community in Istanbul, joined the project as a fixer. Having Abduweli lead the crew made it easier to get access to the stories. Simina Mistreanu, a China correspondent for German Press Agency DPA, joined Living in the Unknown as a reporter and field producer. Having previously reported from inside Xinjiang herself, she brought her expertise on the Uighur issue and her knowledge on China to the project.
Uighur translator and singer Rahima Mahmut and musician Tøhīr, based in London, composed the original music score. Uighur artist Azimet Ahmet who, from Istanbul, created powerful illustrations based on his own experiences. Uighur activists also sourced material, including photos and videos.
Living in the Unknown was published on AJ Contrast, Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera Arabic and AJ+ and made available to millions of viewers across every Al Jazeera social media channel. The story was also told through Twitter threads and Instagram stories and posts with the aim of reaching as many people as possible. The VR documentary was published on the Al Jazeera Contrast app and can be viewed using Oculus Go headsets. We also detailed our challenges reporting on this issue through entries in our Medium blog post.
The VR documentary was a finalist at this year’s Webby and Shorty awards, and a nominee at the 2019 Venice TV Awards. Living in the Unknown is also currently a finalist in the Online Journalism Awards 2020.
The interactive page has been widely shared by scholars and Uighur activists on social media, and has been described as “gripping,” “incredible,” “powerful”, and “magnificent. “This is one of the best web experiences on the crisis that I have seen,” said Timothy Grose, an assistant professor of China studies at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana.
Living in the Unknown provides an intimate yet informative take on the human rights crisis unfolding in China. Through personal stories told in collaboration with young talented Uighurs, the project reveals the hardships of being a Uighur in exile and what it can feel like to be a part of a community that suffering systematic abuse and the ongoing threat of erasure and assimilation.