Immersive Doc ‘Stay Alive, My Son’ Uses Compassion to Spur Action

Prosecutor-turned-immersive storyteller Victoria Bousis has seen the often-separate strands of her professional lives converge in unexpected ways as she’s toured her recent project, “Stay Alive, My Son.” Using Cineplay – a mix of cinema with gameplay mechanics – the immersive experience adapts the memoires of human rights activist Pin Yathay, allowing users to embody Yathay’s story of heartbreak and hope through the Cambodian genocide.

After premiering out of South by Southwest and playing Venice Immersive, “Stay Alive, My Son” showcased at this week’s NewImages Festival in Paris and was recently selected for Annecy’s VR competition in June. Threading a personal narrative through evocations of wider historical atrocity, the project has also made an impact beyond the XR festival circuit, and was invited by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to screen for diplomats, NGO bigwigs and heads of state in a bid to shape global policy.

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“From my own experience as a lawyer, I know how files can build on top of files,” says Bousis. “That can only lead to a growing desensitization, as you become further removed, forgetting that these files aren’t just filled with words — they represent human beings and real, lived experiences.”

Bousis studied up ahead of her U.N. presentation, learning of the key elements that prevent most refugee reunifications before deploying her project to spur positive action.

“We wanted to give these cases a human face, showing what really happened to this beautiful family,” she says. “They were torn apart, and hopefully that encourages those entities and organizations to help reunite and preserve more families. Opening such discussions can lead to greater action – so my goal as a storyteller is to plant the seeds for this more human approach.”

Pin Yathay and Victoria Bousis at NewImages
Pin Yathay and Victoria Bousis at NewImages

Only don’t call this empathy – as Bousis bristles at the term. “Empathy feels like a cheat,” she says. “It just says ‘I feel very bad about your situation.’ Instead, I prefer to use ‘compassion’ because that implies action. It says, ‘I feel terrible about your circumstance, so now I’m going to act on those feeling and do something about them.”

Use whatever term you like, because the NewImages showcase prompted a range of deep emotion. After fleeing Cambodia, Yathay made a new life for himself in France – and the now 80-year-old author and subject was on-hand at this year’s festival to present his story and test out his immersive experience. He gave it thumbs up, despite initial misapprehensions.

“His first reaction was funny because he didn’t understand if this was going to be a videogame,” says Bousis. “I explained that it would not be a game, but would instead use similar mechanics to help the users to actually experience and live his story. Pin said that if doing so speaks to future generations and prevents the past from repeating itself, then let’s go for it.”

While developing a new biographical experience about designer and fashion icon Peter Dundas, Bousis continues to iterate and retool her most recent work. Next, she hopes to introduce a version of “Stay Alive, My Son” optimized for LED walls and shared viewing experiences, and is in conversations with Los Angeles-area cultural spaces for a possible museum showcase.

“I’m not a traditional director, so I think the possibilities are limitless,” says Bousis. “These stories can live and breathe on headsets, devices, screens and physical spaces. All that really matters is reaching the audience and fuelling dialogue.”

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