The Dead Sea is one of the unknown casualties of the turbulent politics of the Middle East. Population growth since the founding of Israel has diverted much of its source water for human use. Mineral extraction companies have reduced it even further, and of course global warming is continually increasing temperatures and making the region more arid. Since the watershed basin is shared between Israel and Jordan it requires international cooperation to address, and though there have been attempts to do so they have not matched the challenge that the Sea is facing. The result is that the Sea shrinks by over three feet per year, leaving behind a barren landscape riddled with enormous sinkholes that make human activity dangerous. Large swaths of land that were once crowded beaches are now cordoned off for safety.

Documentary photographer Adi Lavy spent her childhood visiting the Sea and now as an adult documentary photographer has been chronicaling its decline. When she discovered virtual reality five years ago, however, she knew it would be the ideal medium to recreate this vanishing place. After several years of production she premiered the VR documentary film Once Upon a Sea at the Venice Film Festival last year, and it’s now showing as part of SXSW’s Virtual Cinema lineup. The film alternates between what are usually distinct forms of VR filmmaking, such as traditional 360-degree documentary footage, interactive spaces with six degrees of freedom (6DOF) where viewers can move around and interact with elements captured through photogrammetry, a process similar to scanning all of an object’s surfaces to digitally recreate it in three dimensions. The resulting film is more of a portrait than a political polemic, and is permeated with a melancholy nostalgia for what is already lost. Lavy’s goal, however, is that this three-dimensional recreation can convey to future audiences how the Dead Sea once was, and it’s possible, of course, that this emotional approach could spur political action now to save it before it is entirely gone.

Filmmaker: You grew up on the shores of the Dead Sea. On a personal level, how does it compare now to the memories that you have from then?

Lavy: I grew up in Jerusalem, which has no sea, so the Dead Sea is considered the sea of Jerusalemites and my mother and I spent a lot of time there. My father and sisters wouldn’t come near the Sea, it was too salty and hot for them.

Today, going to the Dead Sea is heartbreaking. Most beaches are forbidden access and everywhere you look you see ruins. It’s very hard to reach the water, the natural beaches, and even when you do, there are no facilities, no sweet water. Most of the places I’ve known since childhood are too dangerous to visit. When I was young, I remember sitting in the back seat of my parents’ car, nose glued to the window, looking out at the big blue of the Dead Sea. Back then the Sea reached the road, and it seemed that if I stretched out my hand, I could touch its salty waters. Today, driving down the same road, the water line has receded many miles, replaced with barren land and sinkholes, sprinkled with many warning signs forbidding access to the Sea.

Filmmaker: Why did you want to make this piece in virtual reality rather than a traditional film or other medium?

Lavy: Each person has a landscape that has been etched in his childhood and continues to be a special place for him, even if only as a memory. The shores of the Dead Sea were that special place for mother and I. The heavy heat, the salty water, the wild nature and the loneliness that prevailed there brought us closer together. But slowly our private paradise changed face. In the past thirty-five years the Sea’s water receded over thirty-five meters due to human intervention and political neglect. Due to the ecological crisis, the Sea receded, huge sinkholes appeared, roads collapsed and the shores of the Sea were abandoned.

For the past decade, since my mother has passed away, I’ve been devoted to documenting the Sea, in hopes of preserving whatever was left, a minute before it was also gone for good. But whatever technology I used, photography, video, audio, I was unhappy with the end results. I wasn’t able to capture the essence of being there. That changed in  2015 when I experienced  Way to Go by Vincent Morisset. It was the first VR experience I tried and it impacted me greatly. After years of failed attempts, a seemingly simple walk in the woods awarded me the creative vision to recreate the place I loved. Now I had to learn what these are and how to use them. Five years later I am glad to share the results of that inspiration. A new view of a haven that is gone, but still exists in my memories and here.

For many years I had an ominous feeling when visiting the Sea. From fear of losing my haven, I instinctively began photographing the Sea and those who visited it.  After a few years, once I realized the scope of the disaster and the Sea’s grim future, I felt that photography and video wasn’t enough. I looked for other technologies that were more immersive, that could freeze the place in time and let me visit it time and again. After Way to Go introduced me to the world of VR and its storytelling possibilities I instantly knew I found a way to tell the story of the Sea.

Because we have lost so much access to the Sea throughout the years, and people didn’t know what was really happening on the closed  beaches,  I wanted to create an experience as close to reality as possible and expose the magnitude, beauty, and horror of this phenomenon.  We used photogrammetry to create most of the 3D assets. With places that were already ruined, like Shimon’s garden, we used old photos and recreated his  once lush garden in CGI.

Filmmaker: Tell me a bit about the writing process, especially as you planned out how to combine the nonfiction footage, the photogrammetry, printed text, and spoken narrative.


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