Four students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have made it their mission to promote awareness of police brutality with the use of modern technology.
Mia Ruggiero, a freshman at the university, Apurva Chakravorty, a sophomore, Jewel Ifeguni, a junior, and Katie Mimnaugh, a masters student, have produced their own film using Virtual Reality technology. The film tells the story of a young black man on his way to a graduation party and the events that occur after he is pulled over by a police officer.
The story will be told from the perspective of the young man, his mother and the police officer in question.
Ifeguni, the director, and producer of the project was inspired to explore Virtual Reality after taking a course through the university’s computer science department, during which she made a virtual experience based on the story of Sandra Bland.
“It was this project that inspired me to continue to tackle topics relating to police and minorities through Virtual Reality,” she said.
Ifeguni said that Virtual Reality can bring about empathy from viewers. “Empathy is the feeling of being in someone else’s shoes and in VR one can literally do that,” she said.
The group wanted to take on the topic because of its relevance in today’s society.“We consistently see black males whose lives are taken solely because they are black. At the same time, we see the officers ridiculed for trying to do their job,” Ifeguni said.
The women felt that it was time to start using modern technologies like Virtual Reality to tell these stories and address the issues at hand.
Ifeguni said that in order to get their full point across, the story needed to have perspectives from both the driver and the officer, while also featuring a taste of how the driver’s family is impacted. “What better way to show this than through a mother’s perspective?” she said.
In order to drive their point home, the group knew that each character needed depth and the special features in order to make viewers feel as if they were actually living out the events in the film. They addressed this issue by showing the characters as more than just an officer, a boy, or a mother, and getting into who each character truly is as a person.
“We also wanted to use this film as a way to break stereotypes, especially in regard to the driver Davion Braxton,” Ifeguni said.
To help raise funds for the materials needed to produce the film, the group started a GoFundMe page to raise $5,000.
“It definitely was scary to take the risk of putting ourselves out there and asking for that much money right off the bat,” Mia Ruggiero, the team’s film promoter and lead marketer, said.
After only two months, the group raised $5,325. “Our team is so thankful to everyone who donated and are extremely excited to make them proud to have invested in this project,” Ruggiero said.
The extra funds will be used to purchase better quality props and technical equipment for future projects.
Ifeguni said the team wants to extend the series to focus on more stories that are not usually seen in mainstream media.
“Because of VR’s ability to tell immersive stories, I think VR has a future in storytelling. However, it will be a struggle to reach all audiences until it’s a more portable and accessible to users of all socioeconomic backgrounds,” she said.
For this project, Ifeguni said the group hopes to expand the current conversation on police brutality. “Oftentimes conversations regarding police and minorities can be very polarizing but if we take the time to empathize with all sides we can have more productive and effective conversations,” she said.