“If you bump your head and can’t remember who you are, stories are what put you back together,” musician and filmmaker Samuel “Blitz” Bazawule said onstage Wednesday at the Fast Company European Innovation Festival in a panel on how technology is changing the art of storytelling. “That’s why it’s critical to protect our stories, whatever technology we embrace.”
Bazawule, whose directorial debut, The Burial of Kojo, was acquired by Ava DuVernay’s Array and is now streaming on Netflix, was speaking on a panel with Jessica Brillhart, founder of the immersive content studio Vrai Pictures and director of USC’s Mixed Reality Lab, and artist Dustin Yellin, who founded the multidisciplinary Pioneer Works cultural center in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
The trio discussed the importance of harnessing new technologies to bring more inclusivity—and humanity—to the world. Bazawule cited the power of new technologies and platforms, from virtual reality to streaming services, to offer opportunities “to tell stories that aren’t singular or monolithic, stories of black and brown people, of women, of people who have historically been excluded from the narrative.” He said he was able to film The Burial of Kojo, which tells a coming-of-age story about a girl and her father in his native Ghana, on a relatively small budget because of recent advances in filmmaking technology.
He sees his movie as a corrective for the kinds of films about Africa that typically come out of Hollywood. “As an African, I was socialized to believe that the only African narratives that worked were about war or famine,” he said. “Very few [films] had to do with life outside of these tragic lenses.” This limited perspective, he said, leads to a lack of empathy. “You can’t have empathy for people you haven’t been exposed to. We need stories that humanize.”
Brillhart, who formerly headed up VR filmmaking at Google, agreed. She says her years working with Google and others made her realize that “a lot of the money and tech is owned by large corporations—and decisions about who gets to use the technology, what stories are told, who gets funded, and what kinds of content are made simply depends on how [the leaders of these companies] feel, that month, or even that day.”
She recalled that when virtual reality first launched, there was an immediate push to get it into the hands of Hollywood filmmakers, which she called a “mistake on a number of levels.” Instead, she worked with the organization Electric South to help introduce the technology to creators in Africa. “The idea was to empower artists who are usually marginalized,” she said, “to actually to tell their own stories.”
Yellin, whose Pioneer Works includes a tech lab, science studios, and VR and AR production facilities alongside galleries, stressed the importance of working with people who don’t share your perspective. “I would rather be in a room with a physicist than with someone who is doing exactly what I’m doing,” he said. “Bringing disciplines together is an incredible way to build community, and then this beautiful thing called critical thinking is born.”