Ava DuVernay thinks empathy operates like a habit — some emotional version of muscle memory. It requires maintenance, repetition, routine exercise. “There's a perception that being empathetic is an innate trait,” the writer, producer, and director tells Refinery29. “And while that’s true for some, like with anything else, empathy needs to be practiced to be developed. You have to prioritize it as a skill that needs nurturing in order to grow.“
Naturally, for DuVernay, one particularly potent way of cultivating empathy is through film — the making, the viewing, and the sharing of cinematic work. As a Sundance and BAFTA-winning director, an Academy Award nominee, and the highest-grossing Black woman director in American box office history, she’s no stranger to the creative urgency of on-screen storytelling. Now, she’s filling a new role as the face of New Realities, a short documentary series released this October, using 360-degree and virtual reality technology to amplify the voices of 10 young women across the globe who are working to benefit their communities.
Created in partnership with Lenovo, Girl Up — the gender equality initiative of the United Nation Foundation (UNF), and DuVernay herself, the film series features immersive, first-person cinematic snapshots of change-making young women in Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the U.K., and the U.S. Captured over the last four months using 360-degree storytelling technology, the series’ protagonists invite you into their spaces, breaking down the barriers between themselves and their audiences as they kickstart community efforts, champion social causes, and challenge conventions.
The participating women also received mentorship hand-selected by DuVernay's own arts advocacy group, ARRAY, and change-making technology from Lenovo to support their missions (think: enterprise-grade ThinkPad X1 Yoga laptops for coding, and Yoga C940 models for music). Whether supporting a social cause, creating art, or pulling weight in their communities, each participating young woman was given the smart technology to drive impact — and an immersive storytelling platform through with which to document it.
“These women gave their hearts, wore their hearts on their sleeves — their passion, their family histories, their legacy, their community,” says DuVernay. “And that’s the real joy in this: To walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. To literally be able to see the world through their gaze. That’s what this technology allows us to do.”
Had she been given this kind of storytelling technology in her own childhood, DuVernay says she can’t fathom what she might’ve done with it. But there’s a joy in watching young women capitalize on a version of filmmaking she could never have imagined for herself. “I didn’t come to filmmaking until I was in my mid-30s because I had no concept that I, as a girl of color, could ever make films,” says DuVernay. “And so the idea that this program allows young women to dream — and not just to dream, to do, to make, to be a maker — is beyond anything that I ever had, everything I ever considered.”
As for virtual reality technology itself, she believes we’ve been on the cusp of something for quite some time, now. Folks are still calling VR “the future” or “the next big thing” — but the technology has yet to trickle down into a more normalized, everyday space. “It’s not always going to be so specialized, elevated,” she says. “And that’s really what we want: The democratization of cinematic technology. I'm excited to see where it will go. I’ve been excited for a long time.”
In the midst of an era seemingly characterized by an empathy gap — by the fact that we live in a world landmarked by its divisions across racial, economic, even geographic fault lines — a renewed means of restoring humanity to global communities through art and tech feels not just exciting, but essential. It’s a way of taking what is macro, held at a distance, shrinking it down, and inviting it into your living room. In fact, according to recent data from Lenovo, of 15,000+ global respondents in 10 markets around the globe, two-thirds believe that technology has made people more empathetic towards different viewpoints in their communities as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Which is to say that these young women’s stories, as works of art, have the power to prompt real change — to cultivate greater humanity across disparate spaces.
So who, then, is New Realities’ intended audience? According to DuVernay, the answer is simple: Everyone.
“There's no one that I don’t think will be moved by this,” says DuVernay. “Put yourself into an empathetic space and you really invite yourself to enter into someone else’s reality, into someone else’s world. The project is about challenging yourself, getting out of your box.”