Virtual Reality – ‘Normal Day’ is the Embodiment of Empathy

Aayushman Pandey’s, Alexia Kyriakopoulou’s and Natasha Babenko’s stirring documentary, Normal Day, proves that virtual reality is the next frontier for empathetic storytelling

Virtual reality–it’s quite the buzzword in the ongoing evolution of computer-based entertainment. As famed film producer Chris Milk posits, virtual reality has become “the ultimate empathy machine.” From PTSD to cognitive behavioral therapy for phobias, VR is more than a new toy to see far away lands and experience compelling narratives. It could very well be the next mainstay tool for psychosomatic therapy.

But what about combining both entertainment and empathy? How does one reconcile the combination of two seeming opposites? Aayushman Pandey, Natasha Babenko and Alexia Kyriakopoulou are such a burgeoning VR filmmaking team, incorporating documentary traditions into a wholly new medium that has seldom been explored. In their film, Normal Day, Tatyana Kot is a beautifully graceful Slavic dancer that is suddenly faced with a challenged she had never encountered–cancer.

In her drive to maintain normalcy, the dancer goes about her daily routines: she goes grocery shopping, she visits her studio, and she makes plans with friends. But interspersed throughout it all is the unsavory new regiment she must face–MRI scans, chemotherapy sessions, doctors visits. To this dancer, it’s all in a day’s work, but not without it’s deeply upsetting fears and trepidations. The filmmakers work tirelessly to showcase the psychosomatic state of Kot, making us relive her experiences as she lives through them. It’s an intensely emotional experience, one that is substantially exacerbated by the virtual reality embodiment.

But what sets Pandey, Babenko, and Kyriakopoulou’s work apart from his VR documentarian contemporaries is his art installation approach. Whether it’s the incorporation of tactile sensation or personalized messages, Pandey, Babenko, and Kyriakopoulou’s VR film is a triumphant modernist undertaking that instills a deep sense of humanism. If Pandey, Babenko, and Kyriakopoulou’s piece is anything to go by, VR documentaries may be the most bonafide way to convey and instill empathy–the main driving force behind most documentary tradition.

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