The Enemy: Combining Photojournalism and New Technologies

The Enemy is a non-standard work that deals with the representation of the enemy in conflict zones. Its producer, Karim Ben Khelifa, and its Canadian co-producers imagined two complementary experiences—one in virtual reality and the other in augmented reality—to transform the vision that we may have of an enemy.

Going Beyond the Fantasy of the Enemy

The work’s trailer is narrated by Karim, who expresses in it a “frustration” resulting from more than 15 years spent covering conflicts throughout the world through photography: “What I saw [in a conflict zone] was not what my photos were portraying,” he confides during a discussion at Montreal’s Phi Centre. “The Enemy results from a hands-on experience that I had not managed to convey using the medium at my disposal. In the case of The Enemy, the goal is not to explain a war but instead to go straight to something that is much simpler: the word of one combatant against the word of another combatant.”

This trailer unveils both facets of the work: a collective virtual reality experience and an augmented reality mobile app. Each part makes its contribution to the whole.

On the one part, the virtual reality setup proposes a collective experience that is more social and takes on the form of an event for the user who needs to be at a specific place at a specific time to experience The Enemy.

On the other part, the augmented reality application can be accessed anywhere and anytime. For those who do not have the chance of having the setup elect domicile where they live, the mobile experience provides a venue to access the content simply using a [smart]phone. Although less monumental than the virtual reality setup, the mobile app has nevertheless made it possible to present the work in more than 100 countries. It’s a promising complementarity for works seeking to combine immersion, ambition and accessibility.

Regardless of the experience, the intent remains the same: having two combatants face off and allowing the user to meet one or the other. You are not placed in a conflict zone and you are not threatened by the combatants. You engage in a process of understanding, rehumanizing and dialoguing that unfolds between two soldiers whose sensitivity is normally erased by the universal rhetoric of war and by the consciously maintained fantasy of the almost animal-like enemy/aggressor.

The Premises of Virtual Reality

If VR has become one of the most popular acronyms in the world of innovative creation, we must admit that four years ago, when the idea of The Enemy germinated, the technology was still in its infancy.

In 2013, Karim is pursuing a residency at MIT and witnesses the demonstration of a new virtual reality device by Palmer Lucky, founder of Oculus. With the headset over his eyes, he feels dizzy and convinces himself that it’s a good thing: “I then understood that this medium was quite phenomenally able to fool the brain and I asked myself the following question. ‘What would be the result if I removed the people from my photos?’”

Karim exchanges with Boris Razon, of France Télévisions at the time, as well as Hugues Sweeney from NFB, and a common intent takes shape between them. France Télévisions then heads off to find a French producer willing to take on the project. The services of Camera Lucida and producer Chloé Jarry will end up being retained.

Although the editorial intent is very clear, the question of form is far from resolved. It is therefore decided to prepare three prototypes: a first one solely in surround sound, a second one with photographs and surround sound, and a third one in virtual reality. Even though virtual reality ends up being chosen, at this stage, it is but one option among others. Over the space of a few months, initial tests convince the team that it is heading in the right direction and the decision is made.

Then begins what shall be a year of prototyping. At the beginning of 2014, the team meets with several technical stakeholders to determine an appropriate manufacturing process. It’s a complex task seeing as the filming device needs to be installed at the heart of a conflict zone! French company Emissive consequently proposes a lightweight device—that can be operated by a single person—to accompany Karim in the field.

A first shooting is held in June 2014: Israeli combatant Gilad meets Palestinian soldier Abu Khaled. The men are not literally placed face to face, but “they had mutually heard of each other. They did not know what the other looked like but they did know that each was the father of two children,” explains Karim Ben Khelifa. “Both had enough of the war and both were caught in this spiral of violence, order and societal positioning. Both start becoming critical of these repeated wars in which both men have fought to no avail, however.” As a sad confirmation of the project’s urgency, both men will combat in the real world, where nothing is virtual, during the months of July and August 2014, i.e., only a few weeks after their exchanges with Karim.

The audiovisual content collected after the postproduction stage will lead to a first The Enemy prototype in the fall, which will be unveiled at the Tribeca Film Festival in January 2015 before being presented at a series of prestigious events throughout the world.

From Efficiency to Operability

“In editorial terms, the prototype is almost 100% efficient,” boasts Chloé Jarry. “The spectator is fully present and absolutely attentive… People move around freely and without concern.” It is presented at a great number of festivals because of its exceptional character and extent at a time when virtual reality setups of such scale are very rare. Moreover, the quality of the prototype is such as to convince many funders (namely the CNC in France and the CMF in Canada) and partners.

Nevertheless, we know that this prototype does not really represent what we wanted to do,” admits Chloé. “We wanted to create something that was operable and accessible by the general population outside of the festival setting.” This definitely remains out of the question: the main issue with respect to the production phase now underway will be to make The Enemy into a collective experience, whereas filming will continue in Congo, then in Salvador.

“When we moved on to a multi-user model, we proceeded iteratively and conducted a series of tests. We needed to determine what changed when there were two, then three, then four, then five people involved.” The issue is serious because the museums and venues that wish to house the work need to attain a certain level of visitation, all the more so as the experience lasts an average of 50 minutes. Banking on quick user turnover was therefore out of the question…

“The length of the experience was a preoccupation,” relates Chloé Jarry. “Were people going to stay that long? Were we going to have a high percentage of users who stopped before reaching the end? We quickly validated this aspect of the project while conducting tests with users and arrived at the conclusion that hardly anyone abandoned the experience before reaching the end. In fact, 99.5% of people go all the way to the end, even today.” That sure suppresses the preconceptions according to which VR works must be kept short to avoid tiring out the public.

Finally, the team incorporates one last item into the work: artificial intelligence. Before you put on your headset to begin the experience, you are handed a tablet and invited to fill out a questionnaire to share your general view of war and how you perceive the conflicts addressed in The Enemy in particular. The collected data is then associated with your behaviour during the experience, your movements, on what you focus your attention… All that is aimed at proposing you a personalized final sequence, a way to establish a unique meaning of how you operate these three conflicts and their combatants.

photo: Sandra Larochelle

At the end of this long and demanding production process, the project is somewhat behind schedule. For a long time, the team contemplates the possibility of filming in Korea but is forced back to Salvador given the sheer complexity of the task at hand. That does not mean that filming in Salvador was a piece of cake. To the contrary, it was postponed twice for security reasons.

These complications accumulate along with those—although less vital—of a technical nature. For example, the team had to wait several months before the release of the “backpack PC” that you wear on your shoulders throughout the experience. “The work could not have been imagined without it,” recalls Chloé. “We tried negotiating with the manufacturers but were forced to wait for the official release.”

At last, everything is ready. The MIT Museum confirms its interest to house the work relatively early in the production of the project, but The Enemy will first be showcased in France, at Paris’s Institut du Monde Arabe, in May 2017, i.e., three and a half years after the initial discussions concerning the project.

Meeting the Public

From France, The Enemy pursued its tour in Tel-Aviv, then Boston and then Montreal. The public responds very positively to the process: “I am totally satisfied,” confides a jubilant Karim. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever believed it possible for as many people to understand our intention, to cry, to talk about the experience after trying it. They make the message their own because they have lived an experience that will be theirs going forward.”

To this day, museums and institutions are numerous to request the work “even though some of them are taken aback by the installation costs,” admits Chloé Jarry. “Those that wish to go ahead will often seek out sponsors to be able to house the project. Negotiations therefore take some time. We have five or six venues lined up for the coming year.”

The co-producers do not impose an economic model for operating the work and each venue is free to set its admission ticket as it sees fit. “For the hosting venues, it is my belief that it is foremost a question of image. For example, tickets cost $15 each when The Enemy is presented at the Phi Centre in February 2018. It’s a form of accessibility that does not necessarily optimize profitability but instead allows a good number of people to discover virtual reality through a particularly relevant experience. Spots to experience the work sell off quickly given the positive word-of-mouth reviews both in the population and the press. Moreover, The Enemy won the 2018 NUMIX grand prize for the best multimedia production in Quebec.

Photo: Sandra Larochelle

However, the accessibility remains relative because you need to be in the right city at the right time to have the possibility of discovering the work. This is where the second facet of The Enemy comes into play: making its content and process accessible through an augmented reality app.

The Enemy on Your Mobile

The Enemy is deployed in over 100 countries, thanks, of course, to the augmented reality mobile app that can be downloaded free of charge using any recent technology mobile device. However, the development of the app in itself is characterized by many rebounds.

Ever since The Enemy was in its infancy, the NFB has kept a careful eye on the project before deciding to join the adventure at the beginning of the production stage. The Dpt. studio also quickly joins the ranks of the work’s co-producers: “The NFB approached us given we had worked on an interactive documentary in virtual reality titled Clouds. VR was truly only beginning and rare were those who dared adventuring into it.”

Following a meeting in 2015 in Montreal, everyone finds their place: simply put, the Canadian partners will take care of the augmented reality whereas the virtual reality will be handled by the French partners.

However, at the time, developing an augmented reality experience is not an easy task: there are few tools and web giants Apple and Google have yet to have launched their augmented reality creation ecosystems. Dpt.’s team is therefore forced to customize and multiply the tests. After having discarded solutions that require the public to provide certain materials (such as a Microsoft Kinect sensor, for example), they focus on a rather simple experience showcasing combatants that reveal themselves when the user turns on the spot while holding his mobile in front of his eyes.

“In this version, both characters were anchored to the ground and the user could not approach them, he could only turn on the spot. When he looked down, he appeared to float slightly off the ground,” explains Nicolas. “In short, there was no feeling of presence, whereas presence is everything in The Enemy. It’s somewhat futile if you don’t feel the combatants’ presence.”

The rendering is somewhat disappointing but it’s hard to do better with the available tools until Apple and Google launch their respective augmented reality application development ecosystems in the summer of 2017. That is exactly when The Enemy is scheduled for release! The timing is far from ideal but it’s the opportunity to greatly improve the result. It is therefore decided to push back the launch to the fall. The experience will be of better quality, but the opportunity of a joint communication with the virtual reality piece will be missing. It’s the price to pay to obtain a work of quality…

The Singular Power of Augmented Reality

“To this day, the virtual reality market has yet to prove itself, whereas there are hundreds of millions of phones that are compatible with augmented reality,” claims Nicolas S. Roy. “We often tend to combine the two acronyms, AR and VR, but they refer to two different technologies used for totally different purposes. What I find interesting with augmented reality is that the experience can change how you view the space in which you live. If you experience The Enemy in a park and the experience moves you, you’re sure to recall it the next time you pass in front of the same park.”

This accessibility translates to a modest number of downloads (15,000 on iOS) that is nevertheless more than respectable for a demanding documentary project. That being said, augmented reality has not yet been fully incorporated into the mainstream and certain unexpected behaviours may differ from what the creators expected. “We designed this application for it to be experienced outdoors. Karim wanted people to go outdoors and meet other people. However, the experience is often lived indoors. There is probably something intimidating about doing it outdoors in front of others,” explains Nicolas.

These limits are in part inherent to the technology and attributable to the public’s lack of maturity. However, they are far from having discouraged the co-producers of The Enemy. In fact, Dpt. continues to produce works in augmented reality, as does Camera Lucida: “We are currently at work on another virtual reality project, also accompanied by an augmented reality app, because I continue to believe that the two complement one another!” exclaims Chloé Jarry.

It’s a new work that will undoubtedly benefit from the immense experience gained during the (very) long time it took to produce The Enemy. However, that is what it took to complete such an ambitious project which, despite having required a four-year gestation period, nevertheless managed to remain at the forefront of technologies and uses.

When released, The Enemy thus fit perfectly in two main trends: the democratization of mobile augmented reality experiences and the emergence of multiuser virtual reality setups, all the while conveying a simple and universal message that helps us to better understand virtual yet rehumanized combatants.

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