This interview was conducted over email with Sam Wolson and Ben Mauk, developers of “Reeducated,” an award-winning immersive virtual reality documentary chronicling human rights abuses against Uyghurs in China, by Gargi Mahadeshwar, a second-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

Please join us for Immersive Journalism on Xinjiang: Covering Human Rights in China on Thursday, September 2 at 5:30 pm where Ben Mauk and Sam Wolson will speak about “Reeducated.” Register in advance for this event here.

Gargi Mahadeshwar (GM): What first brought you to covering Xinjiang?

Ben Mauk

Ben Mauk (BM): I first traveled to the border of Kazakhstan and Xinjiang, China in the summer of 2018 for the New York Times Magazine. My subject was the Belt and Road, an infrastructure and trade mega-project vaguely centered around a remote dry port at the Chinese-Kazakh border. But I was struck during my reporting by how large and ominous state oppression in Xinjiang loomed over the Kazakh and Uyghur interviewees for that story. Some could talk of nothing else; others were too afraid to say anything about China at all. I attended and reported on the extradition trial of a former camp instructor who was seeking asylum in Kazakhstan. From the stories of detention and disappearance — and in some cases, from the nervous silence questions about China engendered — I realized there was a larger story here than the one I’d come to tell.

Sam Wolson (SW): At the time I was living in Berlin. Ben Mauk and I had discussed his Xinjiang reporting a few times and it seemed like an absolutely devastating and undercovered topic. Over the course of a few weeks / months we started discussing potential ways to collaborate which eventually lead to this project. It took a while to figure out a reason that this subject would make sense in VR. My previous VR film projects covering war in Sudan to conservationists in the Okavango Delta to the Fukushima nuclear disaster all had great storytelling reasons to use VR. Reconstructing inaccessible spaces based on overlapping testimony was a great reason.

GM: What was the biggest challenge you came across while reporting and creating this documentary?

BM: Reporting in the region has become increasingly difficult, both inside and outside China, and refugees and others who speak about oppression in Xinjiang face serious repercussions in countries like Kazakhstan and Turkey where some now live. State authorities persecute local journalists and those working with foreign journalists, probably in order to keep money flowing to Chinese-funded infrastructure and trade projects, and because any conversation around human rights threatens to raise awareness of these countries’ own dismal records in that regard. Reporting required a great deal of care and some secrecy. The creation of the documentary was also a huge feat of reporting, fact-checking, animation, and 3D creation which I’ve written about extensively here.

Sam Wolson

SW: This project had numerous challenges. From a technical perspective we really tried to achieve an aesthetic and visual storytelling approach that I had never seen in VR filmmaking before. So there were tons of technical hurdles to overcome. From the reporting side it was critical for the film that we had overlapping accounts of the same environments and situations. Bridging these two things together took the entirety of the project. At the same time this was also happening before and throughout the pandemic and the US presidential election so learning how to work remotely with each other from across the world took a bit of time.

GM: In the New Yorker, the situation in Xinjiang was described as “likely the largest internment of ethnic and religious minorities since the Second World War.” Knowing this, what are your thoughts on US involvement (or lack therof)? What are the most important things for Americans to know and do to work for human rights there?

BM: US state involvement so far has involved some saber-rattling, sanctions, and restrictions on the importing of materials that may have been made or processed with forced and coerced labor (both in Xinjiang and in factories elsewhere that employ what the Chinese government calls “surplus” Uyghur labor, usually accompanied by the threat of detention). I am glad that there are robust efforts in place to prevent the international sale of cotton and other goods tainted by human-rights atrocities in Xinjiang. At the same time, I am generally skeptical of the usefulness of economic sanctions as a neoliberal human-rights cudgel, as they immiserate the poor in target countries and rarely produce the desired effect of changing national policy (whether in Russia or Venezuela). And of course I’m against any military involvement, or any war, including a new cold war, and it is painful and enraging to see the xenophobia and racism toward Chinese and other Asian and Asian-American people that has come out of these heightened tensions in the US. One immediate thing the US can do is to ambitiously expand its asylum program for ethnic and religious minorities from Xinjiang, including those now living, quite precariously, in Central Asia, Turkey, and the Middle East. Americans can pressure their representatives to hold the US to its principles of religious freedom and freedom of expression, and to the words enshrined on our Statue of Liberty. US leaders can show that their actions match their professed concern for Uyghurs and other Turkic and Muslim people in China by offering the clearest material help we can–a safe haven. So far the Biden administration has opted to continue many of his predecessor’s asylum policies, which I find indefensible, and has only raised the asylum cap under pressure of activist groups. It remains far below our capacity. We can do a lot more.

GM: Where do you see the most promise for real change in Xinjiang?

BM: The voices of people from Xinjiang are crucial for effecting real change in the region. Advocates, activists, and journalists with extensive lived experience in the region are best positioned to tell us what disempowered minority locals there need from an international community. Real change will come from grassroots efforts to document atrocities in Xinjiang and agitate for changes to policies; it won’t come from politicians or self-interested governments themselves. For now, people can, for example, reach out to their local Uyghur communities to ask what they can offer to help. And write their representatives.

GM: What is your advice to young people who want to go into journalism?

BM: Read widely, talk to strangers, develop a healthy sense of curiosity in the things that people around you seem to ignore.

SW: Don’t be afraid to innovate and experiment with new tools! At the same time make sure that your projects have a solid journalist core.