Human & Machine• VR

VR Film Highlights Female Empowerment in War

A groundbreaking technological film experience captures women in conflict.
Leanna Johnson
VR Film Highlights Female Empowerment in War

VIRTUAL REALITY EXPERIENCE “The Sun Ladies” premiered at this year’s Sundance Festival as part of its New Frontier section for cutting-edge, experimental work. It was also showcased in the Virtual Cinema portion of the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in March. 

The seven-minute, 3D, 360-degree documentary, which centers on a female-only fighting unit in Iraq, is only the second film in the world to feature virtual-reality footage of a war zone. Viewers are directly immersed in the simulated world of the Sun Ladies through VR 3D headsets, experiencing the action alongside each character, similar to a first-person video game. The film combines live action with animation and spatial audio. 

“The Sun Ladies” follows protagonist and leader Xate Shingali, who was kidnapped when ISIS soldiers attacked her Yazidi community in North Iraq, taking over 3,000 women and girls as sex slaves. After she and several others escaped, they formed a unit with a mission: to rescue fellow Yazidi women and to “protect the honor and dignity of their people.” 

VR filmmaking is meant to simulate a sense of “being there,” so viewers enter an experience shot from eye level. Filmmakers work with multiple lenses to film portions of the same scene and stitch the different angles together in post-production for a seamless 360-degree, multi-dimensional effect. 

Actress and activist Maria Bello, who headed the Sun Ladies production team, narrates portions of the documentary. Alongside her work in film, Bello cofounded We Advance, an organization that supports female health in Haiti, and in 2012 was named a goodwill ambassador for women by Haitian President Michel Martelly. 

The Sun Ladies was codirected by French native Celine Tricart, the first woman to be a stereographer for a feature film, and the founder of the film’s production company, Lucid Dreams Productions. Codirector Christian Stephens, a British war journalist who specializes in conf lict zone coverage, captured the world’s first virtual-reality war footage in 2015. 

“VR is about ‘being there’ and empathy,” Tricart wrote in an article for SHOOTonline. “[It’s] a completely different type of filmmaking. When done well, it can be transcendent.”