How VR Helps Tell the Story of Cultural Preservation in Wartime Ukraine

Oculus Blog
November 30, 2022

TL;DR: Today we’re honored to announce the launch of You Destroy. We Create. The War on Ukraine’s Culture—the latest project in Meta’s VR for Good initiative. A new 25-minute VR film from NowHere Media, You Destroy. We Create. explores the efforts of dancers, street artists, DJs, and more to keep Ukraine’s culture alive in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion in February 2022.

When war breaks out, its impact touches everyone and everything in the countries where bombs fall and bullets fly. And one thing often forgotten is that the culture of nations under attack can very much be at risk from aggressors’ actions.

Sometimes the aim of aggressors is to steal valuable cultural artifacts, while other times the goal is simply to destroy them. During World War II, for example, Adolf Hitler directed his armies to hoard their victims’ invaluable collections of fine art—efforts that have been well documented in book and film, and which have ensnared museums in controversy for years.

But the battle over culture and cultural artifacts isn’t a thing of the past. Indeed, the world is witnessing it once again in real time. In the months since Russia invaded Ukraine, more than 200 culturally significant sites have been damaged across Ukraine, according to UNESCO, including nearly 100 religious sites, 16 museums, 77 historically and/or artistically important buildings, 18 monuments, and 10 libraries. This is despite the fact that both Russia and Ukraine are signatories to the 1954 Hague Convention, which recognized that damage to the cultural property of any country damages “the cultural heritage of all humanity, because every people contributes to the world’s culture.”

Yet even as the war in Ukraine rages, countless people there are risking their lives ensuring that as much of the country’s culture survives as possible, both through the preservation of existing art and the creation or performance of new work.

The story of these courageous artists, performers, and curators is at the heart of You Destroy. We Create. The War on Ukraine’s Culture, the latest project in Meta’s VR for Good initiative, which fosters and promotes immersive storytelling focused on social impact. The film, from NowHere Media, looks closely at the efforts of the dancers, street artists, performers, DJs, and others who have been fighting to keep Ukraine’s culture alive since Russia invaded last February.

The Stories of War, Told in VR

Examining the nature of war has long been one of the strengths of narrative VR storytelling. Over the years, filmmakers creating content for the Meta Quest Platform have explored topics as diverse as the Anne Frank House, war in Uganda as seen through the eyes of a young girl, the existential fear of nuclear weapons, and resistance to Nazi occupation.

Much as with these earlier efforts, You Destroy. We Create. leverages VR’s unique ability to immerse you in a narrative. For viewers, “war is omnipresent, yet it’s distant because you always view it through a window of your phone screen or TV monitor,” says NowHere Media Co-Founder Gayatri Parameswaran. “VR gives the audience an intimate space to listen to the stories of the people we worked with and leads to heightened emotions and the feeling of being closer to the people in the film. And this drives home the essence of the conflict in an experiential way.”

With You Destroy. We Create., NowHere Media aimed to help viewers expand their understanding of Ukrainians as victims of war. “They are also actively defending themselves against the aggression, and not only with weapons,” says NowHere Media Co-Founder Felix Gaedtke, “but with art and on the cultural front too.”

Having previously contributed to VR for Good with Home After War, an immersive exploration of the Iraqi city of Fallujah in the years after conflict ended there, Gaedtke and Parameswaran were confident their new project was also a perfect match for Meta’s ongoing initiative. Their Berlin-based production house works at the intersection of storytelling, impact, and technology, and the two filmmakers knew that the way You Destroy. We Create. used technology to promote social change was consistent with VR for Good’s mission.

And while the focus of the film is on its subjects and subject matter, the filmmakers’ own experience in Ukraine during production helped them better understand—and therefore, better explain—the realities of life on the ground in the embattled country. For example, the crew spent time with street artist Gamlet just 30 kilometers from the frontlines in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. “We constantly heard the bombs on the battlefield and were subject to air raid sirens,” recalls Gaedtke. “Seeing Gamlet and his friends continue creating art and doing their work was really inspiring.”

To be sure, the constant sirens and the fact that many of the people Gaedtke and Parameswaran wanted to collaborate with had fled Ukraine slowed down their production schedule. And that meant staying flexible and ready for anything, as well as being grateful for the progress they did make.

And some of the experiences they had left them with renewed enthusiasm to tell the stories of the people keeping Ukraine’s culture vibrant during the war. Gaedtke remembers that Gamlet took the crew to a music club in Kharkiv that was just reopening for the first time since Russia’s invasion. “The owner of the club told us that having oases like that during such difficult times is so important,” Gaedtke says. “It gives the residents of the city something to look forward to and brings cheer to an otherwise bleak existence.”

When you think about life in a war zone, you might imagine the best thing people can do is hunker down and try to stay safe. But one of the key lessons of You Destroy. We Create. is that there’s tremendous value in creating and preserving culture during a war.

Day after day, the heroes who took it upon themselves to save Ukraine’s culture came face to face with important questions like what happens when museums must hide their collections instead of showing them, what it takes to be a musician when your country is under siege, or what it means to be a street artist as artillery is being fired indiscriminately at you. “Culture is what brings people together and gives them identity,” explains Parameswaran. “And art is able to express this in ways that nothing else can. These are the questions that our main protagonists had to ask themselves during the war. And the answer is what makes the film."

Check out You Destroy, We Create. The War on Ukraine’s Culture in Venues in Meta Horizon Worlds* between November 30 and December 4, or watch it anytime on Meta Quest TV.

*Meta Horizon Worlds is currently available to people 18+ in the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, Ireland, France, and Spain on Meta Quest 2 and Meta Quest Pro.