Using VR to tell rare stories

photo of man in desert
2 Apr 2019
4 min read

'That day, Nyarri saw a thing he couldn’t name. It would be twenty years before he heard the words atomic bomb' - Curtis, Nyarri’s grandson

Collisions is a virtual reality journey into the land of indigenous elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan and the Martu tribe in the remote Western Australian desert.

Nyarri’s first contact with Western culture came in the 1950’s via a dramatic collision between his traditional world view and the cutting edge of Western science and technology. 65 years later, filmmaker Lynette Wallworth carried cutting edge video technology into the desert so Nyarri Nyarri Morgan could share his story. Amid the endless horizon of the remote Western Australian desert, we are given a rare insight into the hidden history of Britain’s nuclear testing by stepping into Morgan’s shoes.

Lynette Wallworth recounts the creative process behind bringing Nyarri Nyarri Morgan's story to life through VR:

I first heard of Nyarri’s story four years ago on a hunting trip with the Martu women painters in the Western Desert. Hearing that I had been to Maralinga where Britain tested atomic bombs in the 1950’s, Nyarri’s wife Nola turned to me with what felt like an instruction…'You have to talk to Nyarri.' 

A year later I did just that and I heard a short powerful parable that Nyarri had waited almost his entire life to share. So this work was born, as a thought or an imagining. I hadn’t yet experienced Virtual Reality and I was waiting to decide the form that would best suit this work. I experienced my first VR film, almost a year ago to today, and when I saw it I knew how to make Nyarri’s story come alive. I have worked in immersive environments for over 20 years and I felt like VR was the technology I had been waiting for. At the same time, Sundance New Frontiers Institute co-directors Shari Frilot and Kamal Sinclair had exactly the same thought. A partnership with Jaunt VR has made Collisions a reality but only with the inexhaustible, unflappable energy of producer Nicole Newnham.

‘This is not my story. This is Nyarri’s story‘
Lynette Wallworth

I love new technology. I love the moment when the viewer experiences a new sensation for the first time. I know that moment gets seared into memory. I also believe in the power of story to reshape us collectively. I think the two belong together. VR will soon hit in a big way, very possibly to become ubiquitous. In the window of time that exists before then I wanted to make a work that has protocols of meeting at its core. Nyarri’s world is only available to me to visit, and in this work through the technology, that invitation is extended to the viewer.

The agency in Collisions belongs to Nyarri. When I put the camera down in front of him he said, 'It has sixteen eyes.' I replied that it has sixteen eyes and four ears. From that moment, Nyarri become the one who decided what was seen and what was not to be seen, what was told and what was not told. The powerful sense of presence of VR makes everything personal. Nyarri knew who it was he was speaking to. So this work is something of a gift sent out from a private world.

‘When I put the camera down in front of him he said, 'It has sixteen eyes'‘

It contains an old story, held close till now. It is a technological message in a bottle to a world that teeters on the edge of climate catastrophe, but it is a message shared with a fundamental hope in our capacity to contemplate more carefully the consequences of our actions.

photos of two women looking at Vr headset

Watch: an introduction to Collisions

Collisions is a virtual reality journey to the land of indigenous elder Nyarri Morgan and the Martu tribe in the remote Western Australian Pilbara desert.