The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime. In Congress, it was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, and by the House on January 31, 1865. In Ava DuVernay’s brilliantly produced “13th,” the documentary showed how the Thirteenth Amendment led to mass incarceration in the United States. Most Americans seem shocked by the coded language of this country but if you’re an African American there isn’t anything shocking about the injustice.

So let’s fast-forward and look at lead creator Zahra Rasool’s “Still Here,” a product of Al Jazeera Contrast, the digital wing of Al Jazeera’s Media, the very one that was nominated for an Emmy for their work on “Yemen’s Skies Terror.” In the new VR/AR piece, the issue of incarceration and the implications as to why certain urban areas experience gentrification is delicately explored using Harlem as the focal point.

Told cinematically and through the lens of a single fictional character, “Still Here” follows Jasmine Smith, who returns to newly gentrified Harlem after 15 years in prison. The narrative is crafted together with women who have spent time in prison and are part of the Women’s Prison Association (WPA). “Still Here” represents an invigorating use of transmedia to storytelling and signifies a new direction in authentic, collaborative and community-centered, immersive journalism.

To get a better understanding of “Still Here” I met with Rasool, the Emmy-nominated producer and media entrepreneur who leads the storytelling and innovation studio, Al Jazeera Contrast, part of the Al Jazeera Network, in their New York offices.

We discussed her work in the forefront of new technologies where she is recognized as a force in the art of immersive journalism. “I’m committed to telling urgent stories,” shared Rasool. “Stories about underrepresented communities and related conflict in a way that empowers diverse voices.”

Although Rasool calls New York home, she grew up in India before starting her career as an investigative journalist and associate producer for “Fault Lines” on Al Jazeera English. While studying for her Master’s in Documentary Filmmaking at the Missouri School of Journalism she founded “Gistory,” which uses an interactive map and social platforms to deliver news summaries to millennials globally.

In 2016, she joined RYOT as managing editor to help build one of the first companies to use immersive technology for editorial storytelling. The company was acquired by the Huffington Post where Rasool continued to create stories using VR and AR.

Her suitcase packed and by her door, Rasool travels frequently to the Al Jazeera offices in D.C and Doha, Qatar. Rasool’s team is the only all-female news team specializing in immersive technology and the nomination marked the first time Al Jazeera Digital has been recognized in the News and Documentary Emmy competition.

The Washington Post had this to say about Rasool: “Pay attention to what Zahra Rasool is doing the next few years because hopefully one day we will all be working for her. She has the perfect balance of understanding journalism, story-telling and the power of social media platforms.”

—Reem Akkad, award-winning senior producer of original video at The Washington Post

Here is an edited conversation with Emmy-nominated producer and media entrepreneur, Zahra Rasool after I experienced the VR/AR experience of “Still Here.”

AMSTERDAM NEWS: “Still Here” generated a lot of positive talk at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Congratulations.

ZAHRA RASOOL: Thank you. Sundance was fun. The women were there.

AMN: The women?

ZR: The women we worked with at WPA Women’s Prison Association.

AMN: To walk the reader through this, “Still Here,” the experience started with an AR tour, taking a look at gentrified Harlem and then into a Harlem brownstone, owned by an African American family.

ZR: Yes, that is the family’s brownstone. They still own it.

AMN: I love hearing that a Black family still owns their Harlem brownstone. Can you briefly describe VR/AR “Still Here”?

ZR: “Still Here” is composed of several different immersive elements, the transmedia experience began with an AR tour which provided a little more background into Jasmine’s difficult situation. The physical exhibit featured a series of custom images that—when scanned with a tablet device—unlocked AR portals leading to a handful of different scenes.

AMN: I could not believe what a small space is needed for the VR /AR experience. I mean I just sat in a chair wearing an HTC Vive Pro headset and bam—I was inside Jasmine’s Harlem home. How did you do that? The laymen version, please.

ZR: The VR experience is a series of monoscopic 360 videos which were written and directed by Naima Ramos-Chapman; she’s one of the writers and directors on HBO’s “Random Acts of Flyness.”

AMN: Describe Ramos-Chapman’s style, please.

ZR: Surreal.

AMN: Why did you choose Ramos-Chapman’s surrealistic style?

ZR: I thought it would be great to collaborate with somebody who would be able to bring that aspect into a story that’s sometimes really difficult to watch; it would make it a little more digestible and just give it a different context than the stories that we hear about incarceration.

AMN: What’s next for “Still Here”?

ZR: What’s next? We plan to tour “Still Here” once we find the right partners.

AMN: It doesn’t need a lot of space.

ZR: Exactly. It can fit in a church, a school auditorium, a museum. Like you experienced, it does not require a lot of space.

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