Arriving in Oxford this year with the Sundance Institute delegation had the feeling of a homecoming. I have been lucky to have participated in the Skoll World Forum through their Stories of Change partnership four times, since Maren Grainger-Monsen and I brought the social change makers and stars of our documentary film The Revolutionary Optimists to participate in a panel on youth leadership.
Experiencing their meaningful interactions with the Stories of Change community was exciting, and I have been lucky enough to work on film projects now with several Skoll Awardees—GoodWeave, Healthcare Without Harm, and Health Leads among them. So I have come to know the Skoll community as the supportive, inspirational family that it is.
This year, I came as a Stories of Change advisor but also as the producer of artist/filmmaker Lynette Wallworth’s breathtaking virtual reality film, Collisions. Organically evolved from Lynette’s prior artistic collaborations with the indigenous Martu people in Western Australia, Collisions tells the story of Martu elder Nyarri Morgan and his first encounter with the extreme edge of Western science and technology in the 1950s when he witnessed a British atomic test on indigenous land.
Lynette and I first discussed the story of Collisions at the Skoll World Forum two years ago, which is partly how I became involved in it. This spring, having premiered the film at the World Economic Forum and the Sundance Film Festival, we were excited to share it with the Skoll community. We knew it was going to feel special to share the film at the Forum. But we were curious about how this audience, who all share a passion to get the story of the issues they work on out into the world for good, would react to Collisions.
After all, Collisions is not an issue-based documentary film. It’s not didactic, or educational. It’s not about a country in which many Forum delegates work. But part of the genius of Lynette’s vision is that by harnessing the power of virtual reality to tell this this short and powerful story – a parable of sorts – the viewer visits Nyarri’s homeland and does not learn, but rather experiences the intersectionality of Western issues that collide in Nyarri’s story: among them, land rights, indigenous rights, colonialism, nuclear safety, and scientific ethics.
And by experiencing this explosive story in the context of the Martu’s loving and caring management of their land, we come to our own conclusions about how the kind of short-term decision-making that led to Nyarri’s experience – and that is driving current efforts to mine Uranium from Nyarri’s homeland – is a kind of thinking that we must change if we are to counter climate change. “Climate change” comes powerfully into the forefront of our mind as the film comes to its conclusion, but is never referred to in the film.
Collisions has been called a “stealth nuclear film” and “a climate film that never says climate change,” and it is both of those things. But in Wallworth’s loving hands, and with the powerful presence and words of Morgan and his grandson, Curtis Taylor, the film transcends issues, and speaks directly to our hearts, and to the better angels of our nature—therein lies its power to be a force for change on any of the intersecting issues that it touches.
The same story in other hands, told a different way, might accuse the originators of this technology, who caused Nyarri this pain. But through the powerful presence of Robert Oppenheimer, who in the film meets Nyarri “virtually” for the first time, Wallworth extends her compassion to those decision makers who cannot foresee the unintended consequences of their actions, saying, “There's what we know and then there's what we come to know…and it's what we do next that makes a difference.” In this way the film does not provoke defensiveness from viewers, but offers understanding, and the possibility for change to occur.
The Skoll community felt this and celebrated it. Thoughts and possibilities about the potential for this kind of storytelling to bring a new kind of awareness of the places and people that the social entrepreneurs encounter bloomed around us like the daffodils in the cold and rainy Oxford spring. I felt again but more keenly this time, that these are our people.
Lynette and I were a little bit mad to think we could have pulled off Collisions in the time and in the way that we did—and Skoll and Sundance were right there supporting us and cheering us on. We recognize that gleam in the eye of the social entrepreneur, the optimism they feel that things really can change.
In many of my conversations with the social entrepreneurs, paradigm shift was the topic of conversation, and many are audacious and powerful enough to be close to a tipping point of achieving one. We do the work we do because we also believe that the paradigm shifts the world needs are possible—we just bring different tools and skills to the job of trying to help achieve them. In this case, virtual reality and the powerful, spiritual artistry of Lynette—and the gift of Nyarri’s story.
Nicole Newnham is a filmmaker and writer. Most recently, she produced Lynette Wallworth’s virtual reality film, Collisions, which premiered this January at the World Economic Forum in Davos and was selected for the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Nicole co-directed the Emmy-nominated documentary The Revolutionary Optimists, which inspired her to develop Map Your World (mapyourworld.org).