What did I know about Roma? Like many people, my assumptions came from films. Beautiful ones, like the documentaries Toto and his Sisters and Spartacus and Cassandra. Both films take you into a world of Roma through adolescents and those trying to help them move out of their stifling situation. These stories show Roma as poor and “gypsies”, who live among drug use and petty crime or wear colorful clothes and perform in circuses.
When we started to think about making a virtual reality film about Roma, it was with the idea to transcend these clichés. Roma face tremendous discrimination across Europe. Could we make people feel a connection to Roma, to transcend their perceptions and engage on a personal level? And without resorting to stereotypes?
I visited Albania on a research trip, to talk to various Roma men and women involved in their communities. We visited half a dozen neighborhoods, which were very diverse. Some neighborhoods were organized in a network of streets, with self-standing concrete houses and small courtyards. Others were “barracks” of tents or huts made of tin and concrete, often with wood-burning stoves inside.
Many times they were next to rivers that easily flooded. Often there were large swathes of garbage collecting next to living spaces, and in many places there was no running water. Even some of the neighborhoods with nicely constructed houses didn’t have sewage services in their homes.
But almost every dwelling I entered was spotless, despite the environment outside its doorstep. It was clear that people take pride in whatever space they are able to call home.
In Füshe-Krüja, a town northwest of the capital Tirana, I met Fatmira Dajlani.
After our first conversation, I already sensed Fatmira was the right woman to take us on this journey. She draws you in with her charismatic, warm personality. But as we talked more and I learned about her life, it was her strength that I most came to admire.
Fatmira’s story is nuanced and complicated. She grew up in a well-integrated neighborhood, but married at 14. This is common for the Roma community, though not what her parents wanted for her. Still, she married, and had two kids before 18.
“I was a child, I had no idea how to manage the life I’d started,” she told me.
One day, Fatmira attended a workshop on being active in the community and wanted to get more involved. Since her husband wouldn’t let her, she saved money from selling second-hand clothes so she could do the volunteer work and still pretend she was working.
She started with education — trying to get the local schools integrated (they now are). She now focuses on adult education and women’s empowerment, and to keep kids in school through tutoring.
Fatmira is tenacious. But we didn’t realize how much she would embrace and own this movie.
While virtual reality can bring you into someone’s world, it can also feel exploitative. This is especially problematic with communities that have experienced discrimination, whose shoes a privileged person can never truly fit.
I returned with filmmakers Dan Hodgson and Simon Nazer, who had the fresh idea of having Fatmira be “part” of the film, not just the subject.
Fatmira opened all the doors for us, taking us intimately into her space and narrating the story as a personal journal.
I was nervous when I got the first cut of I Am Fatmira. Having gained the trust of the community, I felt a responsibility to be true to it.
But watching it that first time, I found myself plunged right back into Füshe-Krüje. The intimacy created by the VR goggles, combined with Fatmira’s authenticity was deeply moving.
Now the real question was, what would Fatmira think?
We premiered the film at the European Parliament during Roma Week. In the hotel that morning, I gave Fatmira a headset and showed her the film for the first time.
I waited nervously, as her head looked up, down and around, sometimes smiling or laughing.She took the headset off, and there were tears in her eyes.
“Thank you,” she said. “The two most important things to me are education and women’s empowerment, and you feel them both strongly in the film.”
One drawback to VR is that it can be an elitist thing. What good is creating empathy if only the 1% can feel it?
We didn’t just want to make a film about the Roma, we wanted the community to experience themselves through this technology as well. UNDP Albania mobilized screenings in community centers, and we criss-crossed the country with a van full of Gear VR, from Berat to Durres to Shkoder.
The screening in Füshe-Krüja was the culmination of all of our work. Fatmira had secured a theater space, and when we arrived in town, I was delighted to see a large group of people walking from the community to the space. At least a hundred people were there, Roma and non-Roma — even a dozen local city administrators.
It was very moving to watch so many people, who we had seen every day while filming, watch themselves and be pleased with the story that we told of their community.
“I’m very, very emotional because they accepted this and they are very proud of me,” Fatmira said afterwards. “I just want this to have a positive impact on other women.”
Can VR, with its immersive perspective, create this empathy everyone clamors about? In some ways, yes. Colleagues were blown away by Fatmira. They could feel how amazing she was. Others, who had been to Füshe-Krüja before, noted how real it all felt.
But at the European Parliament screening, I saw VR can also have an impact on policy makers and funders. For these groups, it’s about more than just creating empathy. It’s about putting faces and context on issues that they mostly only know via paper. Giving them an opportunity to actually see the impact of the policies they are or aren’t making or the work they are supporting makes those efforts more accountable.
VR might not be the unequivocal empathy machine, but one thing is for sure. If you can’t meet Fatmira in person, then meeting her in an immersive virtual space is the next best thing.
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