The Enemy

Released: Tribeca 2015; MIT Exhibition October 2016

Creators: Karim Ben Khelifa, Fox Harrell

VR Format: VR Installation

Viewing System: Google Cardboard, Gear VR, HTC, and AR app (iOS and Google Play)

Making its North American premier at the MIT Museum after its initial showcase at the Tribeca Film Festival, The Enemy is an interactive and immersive VR experience intended to confront the lasting hatred between opposing combatants due to history, violence, or circumstance to answer the deeper human questions: Can we change people’s relationship to war? Can there be empathy for your enemy?

Prior to entering the experience, the viewer is given a questionnaire to determine the range of assent or dissent for the Israeli/Palestine conflict, the massacres in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the gang violence of El Salvador’s Maras. Upon entering a simplified virtual art gallery, the viewer sees a photo of either an Israeli soldier or Palestinian fighter, a Congo militant or a rebel, and two Maras gang rivals. A few minutes later, the sound of footsteps are heard and standing before the viewer is a life-size, realistic version of the combatant from the photos. The viewer listens to their humane testimonials and confessions about their life, motivations, aspirations, perspectives on war, genocide and the ensuing conflict, thereby giving a human voice to these people. By merging photojournalism with VR, the creators take a personalize approach in confronting the viewer with the stories of another so, invariably, they too can confront their own judgments on war.

Images taken from real life encounters from Karim Ben Khelifa’s 15-year career as a war photographer, the advanced 3-D scan technology recreates a photorealistic rendering of these people, bringing about an effective and powerful face-to-face encounter with these combatants. The combatant’s scars, tattoos, dress, and defined faces are preserved and rendered with proportional and detailed realism that the viewer cannot help but to be personally present and engaged during this intimate exchange. Furthermore, the highly technical AI tracking system embedded in the headsets, surrounding tracking system, and software the combatant’s eyes follow the viewers. Through this advanced eye tracking technology, the viewer is draw into their personal story and engaged for the duration of this testimonial, building a deeper relationship between viewer and subject.

As a viewer, I found myself emotionally stirred and impacted as the all too human Congo combatants depicted in great detail the first act of violence they witnessed – the cold-blooded massacre of their mother by a machete - which incited hatred for the opposition. As each combatant recounted similar personal stories, I realized that this deep seeded hatred is not innate, but the unintended consequences of dire circumstances. Their point of view became ever so personalized, akin to mine irrespective of an unshared life experience. Likewise, when asked about their aspirations, each combatant had a similar dream: to see the violence end so that their children can live prosperously. Their greatest happiness was their family and, therefore, they would do anything to protect them. Ultimately, this idea of wanting happiness was one shared by myself and human beings globally – isn’t it true that we all dream the same dream of peace and happiness?

Finally, upon viewing all the combatants, the viewer is taken to the final room where they are confronted by “their” greatest rival. The rival is determined strategically by the answers given during the initial questionnaire, earmarking the least amount of empathy toward this individual. The combatant confronts the viewer with a simple, yet powerful question: why do you hate me? This personalized experience brings the issue to the forefront, thereby confronting the viewer’s perspective in a moment of self-reflection. Personally, the impact was profound, as the VR experience had humanized the violence of war and surfaced a new-found empathy toward this human being. Upon exiting the installation, I realized that only by opening the door to empathy and seeing another as a person rather than an enemy, can peace be truly achieved. The Enemy proved this was now possible.