by Zac Johnson ’22

The Duke Human Rights Center kicked off its “Rights, Genocide, and Surveillance in China” series in September with the event Immersive Journalism in Xinjiang: Covering Human Rights in China. Reporters Ben Mauk and Sam Wolson joined us for a talk on Xinjiang and “Reeducated,” their award-winning virtual reality documentary chronicling human rights abuses against Uyghurs in China.  

The event began with DHRC Director Robin Kirk noting that, according to Human Rights Watch, the Chinese government is currently committing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Ben Mauk, based in Berlin, then explains this project first began with his interest in Chinese development along its relatively undeveloped border with Kazakhstan there at Xinjiang.  

What began as a piece on the implications for labor in the area soon became something far more concerned with human, immigration, and asylum rights. While in Jharkhand, Mauk came across the extradition trial of an ethnic Kazakh woman from Xinjiang who had been teaching at a “re-education” facility and was now seeking asylum out of fear of herself being detained. Through the trial, Mauk was introduced to many activists and stories that suggested that potentially hundreds of thousands of Turkic and Muslim minorities in the region were being detained for violating laws that criminalized their daily and cultural lives.  

Mauk returned several times to the area to interview people who reported family members missing or had been detained themselves. Upon meeting who would be the subjects of their film, Mauk and Wolson decided an immersive approach would best address the challenges posed by restrictions on American journalism in China and exemplify the experiences in these detention facilities. They compiled extensive interviews, descriptions, and drawings of life in the detention facilities to help inform their animated interpretation. They published a piece in the New Yorker that sought to add more dimensions to the story in Xinjiang than words possibly could. 

Sam Wolson then took up explaining the technical processes behind the creation of their immersive film and what makes the medium so special. Citing other films and stories predicated on virtual reality, Wolson explains that this medium creates an empathic response in viewers that photographs and words simply cannot illicit. Once he and Mauk obtained multiple, detailed testimonies that described similar detention spaces, they realized VR wasn’t just possible, but necessary to convey the humanity of those detained.  

Wolson points out that VR is not an intrinsically accessible medium of reporting. To address the hurdles posed by the prices of VR headsets, Wolson and Mauk had the full film published in Kazakh on YouTube, the first time the New Yorker has ever released something entirely in Kazakh.  

During question time, students asked about the background of the film, its distribution to various audiences, and what led Mauk and Wolson to this work. One student asked about the safety of the film’s interviewees. Mauk responded by pointing out that, despite his explanations that these reports would not release their loved ones from detention, many people were more than eager to share their stories and attach their names.  

Another student asked about the validity of sources, remarking that it’s difficult to trust both American and Chinese media on the detention taking place in the region. While Mauk confirmed many pieces of media have been misleading, he argues the several, thorough testimonies gave him a pretty clear picture of human rights violations. On the other hand, he explains that even the Chinese government plainly lists the discriminatory policies it employs against Muslim and Turkic minorities, such as forced mixed marriages.  

As a viewer of this event, the depth and revelatory nature of Mauk and Wolson’s work struck me. As they and the audience members confirmed, the misinformation around Chinese detention of certain minorities has made it difficult for outsiders to really evaluate the extent of human rights violations in the area. However, Mauk and Sam’s work in “Reeducated” leaves no doubts: family members are missing, ethnic and Muslim minorities are being policed and detained, and detention is being used to socialize cultural behaviors unto detainees.