The limits of humanisation: ‘ideal’ figures of the refugee and depoliticisation of displacement in virtual reality film Clouds Over Sidra

Moe Suzuki

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The enthusiastic embrace of virtual reality films as ‘the ultimate empathy machine’ by humanitarian organisations and technology companies can be positioned as an attempt to change attitudes towards refugees through a strategy of ‘humanisation’. This article offers a critique of humanising approaches to displacement as they manifest in the United Nations’ first-ever virtual reality film Clouds Over Sidra (2015), targeted at policy makers, donors, and the general public in the Global North. Through an experiential and textual analysis of the film, I analyse two strategies of humanisation in Clouds Over Sidra: reproduction of ‘ideal’ figures of the refugee through the depiction of daily life in Za’atari camp and overrepresentation of children, and depoliticisation of displacement via technological disembodiment in the film. The former results in a never-ending search for purity, and the latter depoliticises displacement through an erasure of differential exposure to colonial and racial regimes of im/mobility. I argue that humanising approaches based on a logic of inclusion ultimately affirm the colonial and racial hierarchy of humanity as they leave unquestioned the already colonial and racial nature of ‘the human’. This article provides an original contribution to debates about VR technology, empathy, and displacement by going beyond a generalised critique of VR films to foreground a critique of humanising approaches to displacement. I conclude by asking what it might mean to think about displacement relationally, an approach that is grounded in a politics of location and global relations of power.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1266-1285
Number of pages20
JournalEuropean Journal of Cultural Studies
Issue number5
Early online date10 Mar 2022
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2022

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