Prisoners of a System: An Interview with the Creators of VR Series ‘Prison X’

Virtual reality (VR) is a medium that remains largely unexplored in film. Even in the world of gaming, with which the technology is most often associated, it’s still evolving and experimenting in its form. It’s here that VR finds its similarities with animation: two mediums that are unbound by conventional ideas of what can or cannot be captured by a physical camera. But, unlike animation, VR remains a space free from pre-established rules for how its storytelling should be structured.

It’s within this very environment that a multicultural team of creatives based around the world, but primarily based between Bolivia and Australia, teamed together to create the first chapter in an ongoing VR experience: Prison X — which premieres as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s 2021 New Frontier section. The titular prison is based on San Sebastian prison in Bolivia, where prisoners experience a limited form of freedom by running their own society within the prison grounds — however policed and corrupt that “freedom” may be. In an effort to capture this paradox, the interactive experience drops the audience within a world somewhere between mythology and reality, and encourages them to explore within the limited confines of an incarcerated space.

Annabelle Ots spoke to Prison X’s director and writer Violeta Ayala, and sound designer and 3D illustrator Roly Elias about pushing the boundaries of co-authored storytelling, fighting against a techno-totalitarian future, and the irony of freedom in colonised spaces.

Annabelle Ots: I’m curious about what led you to choosing VR itself as a form. What was the experience working with that like?

Violeta Ayala: I wasn’t seriously interested until I realised what was possible to make. It’s where cinema is going, in a sense. VR is not just the end itself, but also a tool to generate content in the virtual world. In the past you needed a set and a thousand people to make Happy Feet. Today you need seven people. Because you can paint, you can draw, you can build, you can construct everything within the headset. And then you put virtual cameras inside, and you film it with the motion capture.

AO: I was wondering about the use of motion capture, because usually in animation characters aren’t typically embodied by an actor. And with Prison X’s VR experience, the audience gets to be bodily involved. I find that interesting with regards to the themes of colonialism and incarceration in the work. The use of the body in that way, was that important to you?

VA: We wanted the experience to work so that no one has to teach you how to work the controllers, so we had to come up with an idea that would feel intuitive and a part of the world. That’s where we came up with the idea of it being a theatre show, and the director asks you to be an actor. And then you have to go and embody the actor yourself. You have to physically put on his mask. The moment that you put his mask on, a body comes over you. Your hands are in his hands, and your feet are in his feet. You can see yourself in a mirror. You see your body, and you see how you move, and how you interact with it. I think there’s a lot of problems with embodiment and the way that you have to feel like somebody else, and I didn’t want to play with that. That’s why you’re in a character. It’s not you. 

AO: How much autonomy does the audience have in terms of how they interact with Prison X?

VA: A lot, but not as much as I would like yet. But it’s interactive and immersive. Some things you interact with and you need to move the story, and it’s up to you. Some things you just watch as it happens, like in a play. At the moment, there are rooms in the prison that you can just see from the outside but you can’t enter. We’re developing the rooms for the next episode. Ideally, you’ll be able to play the character that you want to play. The director will tell you, “I’m missing an actor. Choose the one that you want to be”, because each of them have different stories. And then it will be multiplayer, because up to four people in the world can be different characters and do their own stories. The main story is the story that’s currently there, but how you experience the story is where you’ll make a difference.

Roly Elias: And this main story means different things for different people, we’ve noticed.

VA: This is where I talk about colonialism and that standardisation of story and image. There is a standardisation of stories that’s happening in the world. I think that this for me is also a way to fight the techno-totalitarian future that we’re facing, and also to say, “We can have a voice, and we can do this, and we can do it in a warehouse in Sydney but also we can work with all of our peers in El Alto in Bolivia, in Berlin, and we can have all of us in the headsets working together in a way that wasn’t possible to collaborate before”.

“…..this is the new reality. If we don’t learn and don’t make these things and understand them, we’re going to stay behind and it will be because of the lack of critical thinking and the lack of support that young people receive to fail, to succeed, to try.”

AO: How was the co-production? Collaborating with so many artists across so many locations?

VA: It was beautiful. We were working amongst friends. I know everyone personally, pretty much, so to have to work like this was bittersweet, because it would be better to have all of us in the same warehouse together.

RE: The timing was a challenge. One would be getting up and ready to work and is warmed up, they’re having a coffee, where it’s like 3 a.m. for us. We’re already tired! We want to go to sleep! But we had to do it. They had to do it sometimes.

VA: Also the fact that we were working with Alap Parikh, a programmer in India — there are not many like him in the world. He can think outside the box. He’s creative. We were very fortunate to have someone like that to collaborate with on our team. Some of the programmers here in Australia were a bit dismissive of him in the beginning because he doesn’t follow the rules. I said, “That’s why he’s here”. You can make your own rules. Also, code and technology has been developed by white men in general. It’s counterintuitive for women. We need to start developing our own technology.

AO: In terms of bringing your own unique experiences to the project, I know both of you had previously worked with things outside of animation and VR. You, Violeta, directed live-action documentary, and you, Roly, did sound on-stage. How did that help inform what you’re doing now?

RE: It helped in the way that I didn’t see boundaries. If I was a gaming guy, I could have thought, “Okay, this is the best that it’s going to get. Everyone’s doing it this way”. I used to tour the world doing sound for bands in big stadiums, so there was this live energy that you have to feel in the room. It’s not just a recording. Having the ambience, having all of that — we wanted to layer that for the experience. I had to get my cousin to go record in the plaza that we got inspired by and get close to the jail. You can hear one of the policemen telling him off. We’ve been trying to bring this whole world a lot more into reality. It’s not about hearing it but feeling it through your ears.

VA: I am a story-teller. That’s what I do. I love documentary because it always makes me become a different person every time I make a film. I’ll still always make films. For me, that’s just a medium to tell stories. I always tell stories. I even paint. I write, of course, that’s my forte. I draw, and I’m the worst drawer in the world, but I still draw. It’s a way of expression. I think that we can put up limitations. People are so scared of trying new things. But it’s like, well, this is what’s happening. In our own project, the jaguars have artificial intelligence, and they’re learning! It fascinates me and it scares me. Yes, stories are changing. Yes, flat films will still exist to a point. But this is the new reality. If we don’t learn and don’t make these things and understand them, we’re going to stay behind and it will be because of the lack of critical thinking and the lack of support that young people receive to fail, to succeed, to try. Most of the budget that has gone into this project has been to the trial and error process.

RE: We’ve redone so many things!

VA: The hardest part for me was to figure out the pipeline. We had to figure it out ourselves.

RE: We were talking directly with the developers of this software and they were having issues!  They were like, “Oh, that’s a nice idea” and were trying to update it for us.

VA: I remember when I started making documentaries, and when I made my first film when I was twenty-six I think, I didn’t know anything. I was so scared and excited. Every time I make a documentary, I feel the same sensation, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. In this one, I couldn’t! [Laughs] I’m just seeing it now. It takes me out of my comfort zone as an artist. I think that the day that, as an artist, I stop leaving my comfort zone, is the day I stop being an artist and I’ll become a robot. And I don’t want to be a robot. [Laughs]

Still from ‘Prison X’: ©UNF2021

AO: Even though it doesn’t sound like there was much by way of other VR work to look at, were there any other things that influenced you in terms of Prison X?

VA: I think the first time I saw that something was possible, it was Dear Angelica. Also, when the guys were doing Notes on Blindness we worked together in a lab in New York, so I saw the process and how that was evolving. Then Yasmin Elayat, to see what was possible to do with creating 3D personalities. There is a Japanese artist that I really adore, Goro Fujita. I just recently saw The Line, which I really love, but it’s more immersive. 

There’s women like Nonny de la Peña, who started to do this interactivity long ago. I understand her contribution to this medium. Kamal Sinclair, too. There’s a lot of little things. Here in Australia we have Sutu Eats Flies, and Lynette Wallworth. She does more documentary style, but still we build on each other. I don’t think we’re reinventing the wheel. I think we’re building on what other creators are bringing to the table. 

It’s not purely imagination, either. It’s also my mythology. It’s the Andean mythology. It’s the Quechua mythology that I dared to go and embrace. If you asked me who was the devil, it’s the devil in Prison X. This was the devil that I always believed in since I was a little girl. This is the devil you see at Carnivale. We have a living culture that evolves, so that was quite important.

AO: Would you be happy to speak more about that kind of influence on Prison X?

VA: I wanted to go back into my living culture. My country is one of the most indigenous countries in all the Americas. In this project we brought two groups together to work: the Aymarans and the Quechua. We are Quechua. Maria Corvera Vargas — she’s a fashion designer — inspired herself with Afro-futurism and created a new Andean-futurism with our own costumes. Rilda Paco is an artist in El Alto. Olivia Barron is Bolivian, like me she was born in Bolivia, then she lived all her life in Sweden, and then she came back to Bolivia. She was able to create a very square prison. That helps you to navigate it. If she was just a Bolivian artist, she would do something a lot more messy. [Laughs] It’s just working in a co-creative environment collaborating with other people. I couldn’t do it by myself. No one can. You don’t need a thousand people, but you do need to learn to collaborate with ten people in a way that brings us all together. It’s almost weird to call yourself a director. I wrote it and, yes, I led it, but each person in this team — we need them! Everyone! 

RE: We’re sharing ideas. It was very different working with programmers here than with Alap in India who would actually come up with ideas for us. When we ask him for something, instead of saying, “No, and here’s why”, he would say, “Okay, let’s try and do it”.

VA: They tell you to write with a middle, an introduction, and a conclusion. Why don’t we challenge those norms? That’s what we’re doing now in VR. We’re creating a visual language. We’re making history, in a way. It will be built on. That’s what’s exciting. The only way we can fight what’s happening with the techno-totalitarian corporations is by creating things together. We have the technology at the tip of our fingers today. But we need to understand them and play with them. We can only do it together. Alone, we can’t. COVID gave us the space and time to just settle in one place and have to work it through with what we have.

RE: We just had to make it up as we go. And then redo it. And redo it.

“What is freedom? Our prisons are just bigger. We’re so conditioned. This is impacting our lives and our idea of creation. Are we really free? Is it free to have to work eight hours? Who is the sucker?”

AO: Is that part of why it’s a series as opposed to a standalone? To account for what you’ve learnt and being able to do more with it in the future?

VA: We want to be able to give the audience a real six degrees of freedom — that you can do whatever you decide to do, however you decide to experience it, and come up with your own story. For that we need to create a lot more interaction and a lot more immersive stories to make all of the rooms. And there are a lot of rooms! It’s like a labyrinth. It’s like a play that I did in New York years ago called Sleep No More. It’s a Shakespearean play, but whatever interested you, you could go and hear it. Each person would experience it in a different order, so you have your own narrative with the story that you lived. That’s what I would like to achieve with this. That’s why it needs to be a series. Just to work out the pipeline of how it all works takes two months. And it’s frustrating. There are bits of the pipeline we still haven’t figured out yet.

AO: You’ve said it’s inspired by filming Cocaine Prison (2017). How much is Prison X based on that prison in San Sebastian?

VA: Of course it’s inspired, because I know that jail like the back of my hand. There are a lot of stories that prisoners would talk about. When people are denied their freedom, the only way that you can escape is through your own imagination. They imagine a lot of things, and then that imagination becomes a collective belief.

The prison’s been drawn based on a 3D cardboard model of the real prison and the maps of the prison. Some of the characters are based on the stories from Cocaine Prison. The Magpie represents the foreigner who comes and thinks he’s going to save the world. He represents my partner Dan, who goes with the camera and is very capable, but he thinks he owns the truth. It’s a combination of him and Rusty Young, who wrote Marching Powder, a book on San Pedro. In a sense, it makes me question myself when I do these things: who are you to think you have the right to tell the stories of other people and represent them? 

Nuna [an elderly saleswoman in Prison X] is based on my own grandmother and the lady who sells oranges on every corner in Cochabamba. She’s based on all of those very old women anywhere who lie about their age. That’s why we made her actually 157 but she says she’s only 90. Old ladies, when you ask them, who say they’re 78 when they’re 85. It’s not going to make a difference! [Laughs]

The police woman is based on how the police have been built. They’ve been built in supremacy. I wanted to make her a woman, not a man, because I don’t want to keep attaching authority just to men. She’s corrupt. She’s alcoholic. She’s a lesbian. She has her own baggage. I also decided to defy culture, and the Devil is a woman. Or, it’s both. It’s a woman and a man. I don’t want the most powerful person to be a man again. It’s all about representation. Women don’t have to be princesses. Women are devils too. That’s a manifestation of us.

Still from ‘Prison X’: La Diabla (She-Devil) ©UNF2021

AO: In addition the incarceration aspect, what other ideas are you trying to explore through Prison X?

VA: [Prison X] talks about colonisation. It challenged me and my position on this. I feel I’m expected to tell my story as if my story was for sale. I come from a colonised country, although we are the most indigenous country in the Americas. Our way of living was disrupted. It was very stressful for me having to tell my story all the time to justify something that I don’t have to justify. That’s why at the end I say: this is the end for you, and this is the beginning for my liberation. 

It’s also a lot about Mother Earth. The colonised become colonisers. We from the Andes go and do the same thing that was done to us to the Amazonia. Bolivia has the biggest jaguar population in the world, and the most untouched Amazonia in the world. In ten years, we won’t have it. We are destroying it to a level of no return for the production of meat. We all know what the Amazonia means to the world. I even challenge myself: why is the life of a human more important than the life of a jaguar? What makes you believe that? That’s how colonisation works. You think the land belongs to you because you have weapons and you can come take it over. That’s the history of Australia. And then that person thinks that way about the next, and then we still live in this very macho, patriarchal way where we need to always rule over someone else, and also over the animals. We are all trapped in our thinking that we are better than everybody else. If someone watches here, they’re going to draw ideas about colonisation and their own roles. If someone watches in Bolivia, they get the same thing.

AO: You’ve spoken about before the irony of some prisons allowing “freedom” to their inmates when it’s a prison. I think that’s reflected in the VR experience of the audience having freedom in the space but it’s still a limited space.

VA: You see how much freedom you really have. [Laughs] We tricked you! I was also questioning my own freedom. We’re still prisoners of a system. You have to follow all these things, so are you really free? What is freedom? Our prisons are just bigger. We’re so conditioned. This is impacting our lives and our idea of creation. Are we really free? Is it free to have to work eight hours? Who is the sucker?

But Prison X is fun too! It’s very fun! It’s scary too.

RE: I didn’t really find it scary. I was trying to make it scary but I didn’t find it scary because it felt very familiar to me. But a lot of people who aren’t familiar with this find it scary. They get surprised. They walk out of the room like they’ve just seen a ghost. [Laughs] “What happened? I need time to process!”. It’s the idea that they need to process.

VA: And also it’s that you’re trapped. So I guess it is scary in a sense. It’s suspenseful more than scary.

AO: There’s obviously a lot of overlap, as you’ve said, with Indigenous experiences in Australia and in Bolivia, both being colonised countries. How do you think the cultures are in conversation with each other in this work?

VA: Of course there’s some common things, but there’s a lot of different things. In Bolivia, we survive. We are 70% of the population. We have some political power. Our last president, Evo Morales, is an Indigenous man, Aymaran. The vice-president today is Aymaran. The government is an Indigenous government. That’s the big difference. In a sense, the similarities are oppression and the destruction of a culture, and the idea that, because of skin colour, there are people that believe they are better than others. Within white culture, it’s very macho and patriarchal. And when I say “white”, I don’t just mean white-English. I mean white-Spanish, white-Portugeuse, white-French. I think that the dynamics are very similar. 

To survive in the Andes, you have to work the land. In the Amazonia it’s more like places in Australia. The environment is so beautiful, like here. But to survive in this land, you have to respect and take care of the land. In Europe, you need what you need in the Andes. You need to work the land to survive. Here, you need to do the opposite. You need to look after the land to survive and for the land to survive. If not, look what happened with the fires. It wasn’t a coincidence that the fires in the Amazonia were the same time as the fires here. It’s climate change and the destruction that we’re doing. You can’t treat Australia like you’d treat Europe. You can’t even think in the Amazonia how you’d think in the Andes. And that’s what we’re always trying to do. Trying to build roads, trying to build cities like we would in the Andes. 

I don’t believe we are all the same. We’re all different, but we deserve the same respect. Our ideas and our way of living has to be respected. I believe in equity, not equality, because what I want is not the same as what you want or someone else wants. They say we’re a multicultural country in Australia. We can’t be multicultural if we’re monolingual. We can’t be multicultural if we don’t respect other cultures. We can’t be multicultural if we don’t accept what happened, that this country is built on the genocide of an entire fucking culture. Even today the Aboriginal people are the biggest population in prisons. It’s in our hands. It’s not in the hands of the Aboriginal people alone. It’s also in our hands because we, the colonisers, created this mess, not them. We created this racist system. We created this destruction. It’s our responsibility to find a solution. And it’s not just one solution, it’s thousands of solutions. These people in power don’t even care about their own children. They don’t even care about you. They don’t care about your future. They don’t care about the future of my daughter. They really don’t care. They’re so greedy! You’re not going to drink money. You’re not going to drink petrol. That’s not the future. It’s the same in Bolivia.

RE: Take COVID for example. It doesn’t matter how much money you have if your whole health is shut down.

VA: Prison X is giving you a new perspective, a different perspective. I think when people get in the headset, they go to another world, and they don’t know what to do. And I say, “This is exactly how we feel when you come and impose your worlds on us”. We don’t know what to do, and we don’t understand, and that doesn’t make us less. It just puts you in that position where you lose control of who you are.

Prison X plays as part of Sundance’s New Frontier section from January 29 – February 2, 2021.


Annabelle Ots is a writer and all-round funnyman based in Melbourne working in animation production. She has a BFA (Screenwriting) from the Victorian College of the Arts.

Annabelle Ots