When Grenfell Tower survivor Corinne Jones was first asked whether she’d like to be involved in a Channel 4 short film about the former residents of the tower block – shot entirely in virtual reality (VR) – she immediately realised the value of the project.
“I agreed to it because it was talking about how we lived in the tower, rather than what happened on the night,” Jones, 33, explains to RadioTimes.com. “Within the first few weeks [after the Grenfell Tower fire] there was a narrative of, you know, people there are just on benefits, people don’t work, there’s a lot of sub letting going on, but in fact it was the total opposite. I think it [the film] will definitely help the narrative, as to how people view the residents that lived within the tower.”
The 15-minute VR documentary, Grenfell: Our Home, focuses on the lives of the residents before last year’s devastating fire. Images of the tower block and its surroundings are interspersed with interviews with survivors looking straight into the camera as they describe their former home. The interviews were filmed in stereoscopic 360, creating the effect that the survivors are sat right in front of the viewer.
Accompanying these interviews, four rooms and one of the building’s lifts are recreated using computer generation: the original dimensions are recreated exactly, but the interiors are abstract, featuring fairytale-like animations inspired by the memories of the survivors.
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Grenfell: Our Home is a virtual reality documentary about people’s lives, their homes and the community that existed in the Grenfell tower before the fire of 14th June 2017.
— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) June 14, 2018
The film was produced by independent production company Parable, along with video designers 59 Productions, who produced the film’s animations. Executive producer David Wise explains how VR is an ideal medium for a film primarily about lost homes as well as lost lives: “If we were going to be using VR to tell a story, it had to be around what was lost.”
One interviewee, for example, lost her only surviving photo of her daughter, who died 26 years ago, in the fire. In the film, the image is recreated and enlarged, filling the virtual walls.
“Homes were lost,” Wise says, “and home is such a universal thing, isn’t it?”
Director Jonathan Rudd agrees: “The magic of VR is that you can put people into places that don’t exist anymore.”
Nine former inhabitants are interviewed, including Jones and her partner Jason Miller, 38, who had moved to a two-bedroom flat on the 17th floor just 11 months prior to the fire in June 2017, along with their two sons, Amiel and Danel, now ten and eight years old.
Inês Alves, the teenage survivor who made headlines after she sat her Chemistry GCSE paper the night after the fire, recalls during the documentary how she had been doodling intricate biro patterns on her bedroom wall which she never got to finish. The drawings are replicated and enhanced for the film, spiralling out around the viewer. “You can do more beautiful and abstract things [with VR],” Wise says.
In another recreated room, Marci and Andreia Gomes, who lived on the 21st floor, proudly recount how they were able to grow avocado, orange and lemon trees in their “greenhouse” flat. As they speak, the room around them fills with illustrated images of trees, until the flat resembles a rainforest.
“We wanted it to be clear right from the beginning that this is not a traumatic photo-real experience,” Wise says. “We’re not suggesting that their flat was filled with plants in quite that way, but their memory of it is exaggerated.
“They talk about it with such warmth and playfulness that we wanted the visual representation of that to be warm and playful as well.”
Director Rudd says the avocado tree sequence is his favourite part of the film: “These people, who have had this terrible, awful thing happen to them, just for that moment you see that they’re genuinely back in a happier time,” he explains. “You can see it on their faces, and I find that particularly poignant.”
Survivor Jones also found the interview process with Rudd “therapeutic”. Describing the “priceless” views and sunsets from her flat windows, she says the 360-degree view of the tower’s exterior at the beginning of the film enabled her to re-live “for the first time” the familiar view of the trains and buildings below.
The documentary was pitched to Channel 4 last July. “We knew straight away this was not a film about the fire itself,” Rudd says. “It would be completely wrong to make a film in VR… about the actual experience of the fire. You wouldn’t put people in VR in a harrowing situation like that.”
Moving the focus away from the fire itself differentiates the documentary from other films, many of which aired recently to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy, including BBC1’s documentary Grenfell directed by Ben Anthony.
“[It was] as you’d expect, very emotional and powerful,” Wise says of Anthony’s Grenfell. However, Rudd says he was keen not to rely on “the fire images that you just see over and over again” that, he argues, the public may have become desensitised to.
“There was a misconception that it was a dark, dingy tower that was filled with benefits scroungers,” Rudd tells RadioTimes.com, “but actually there were a lot of people who were professionals; the tower was very clean, it was very, very bright. Everyone that we’ve spoken to loved living there and was very proud of it.”
Grenfell: Our Home recently premiered at Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Alternative Realities exhibition, where it won the Audience Award. There were also limited screenings for the local London community over the last weekend of June, with specialist trauma therapists on site. “We’ve had quite a lot of emotional responses to it,” Wise says. The film will be released from 3rd July on Channel 4’s social media channels (no VR headset required) and made available for anyone to download for free in various VR stores, including Google Play store.
Jones says she was particularly moved by the recreation of a Grenfell Tower lift. Snippets of conversation in multiple languages are played over the animation to recreate the tower block’s sense of multiculturalism. “There were so many different languages spoken in Grenfell Tower,” Jones says. “When you got into the lift, it really was, ‘Which language are you gonna get today?’ It could be multiple languages spoken at once.” Telling her family’s story, and the story of the Grenfell Tower community she knew, has brought her a deep sense of catharsis. “It was like going down memory lane.”