VR Cine Chicas Cohort premieres its first documentary using virtual reality

Savannah J Salazar

When you think of summer camp, you may envision playing games, doing arts and crafts or going for a swim, but one group has been doing something a bit more virtual.

Earlier this summer, a group of four grade school girls, dubbed the VR Cine Chicas Cohort, premiered their virtual reality documentary, “Latinx Culture in East Austin,” as part of the Latinx/Indigenous-focused Cine Las Americas film festival. Led by Latinitas, a local nonprofit with a focus on media and technology, the girls were tasked with editing, directing and shooting the documentary using 360-degree cameras to fully immerse their viewers in places around East Austin. 

Sylvia Butanda, Latinitas program director, said the nonprofit strives to teach young girls various forms of media storytelling. She explained that virtual reality was a path they have wanted to build off of for a while, but it wasn’t until they received a community grant from the Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit focused on digital media, that they were able to move forward.

With “Latinx Culture in East Austin,” it was key for the girls to focus on gentrification and highlight the rich Latinx culture in East Austin by having viewers experience it in a new way.

“The goal was to bring the theme of East Austin, and to elevate it to a new level where people that saw this piece would hopefully feel like they were in the piñata store or in Cisco’s restaurant,” Butanda said. “We’re able to piece together more on what (gentrification) means for people.”

Local video and VR production company Originator Studios has been working with Latinitas for about a year now, and hosted the documentary’s premiere. Co-owner Derek Gildersleeve said he loves the idea of these young girls taking advantage of the technology. 

“The girls were so impressed with the (VR) that we showed them,” Gildersleeve said. “I knew once they saw how easy it was for them to actually create it, that they would be really powerful,” 

According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 18 percent of filmmakers are women. The women at Latinitas said they hope to give these girls the tools needed to grow in the media and technology field. 

Latinitas Program Leader Valarie Gold, who worked closely with the VR Cine Chicas Cohort girls as they developed their documentary, said it was fulfilling to see the girls determined to create this documentary. The girls’ planning and editing skills improved, as well did their overall understanding of the technology.

“It definitely made me tear up just a tiny bit,” Gold said. “That’s what this whole program has really been about … creating a voice for these young girls. It’s so important for women to be in filmmaking.” 

Emily Alpuche, 11-year-old Latinitas member and aspiring screenwriter, said getting to experience the filmmaking process in depth has been incredibly fun and has made her more confident in her abilities when it comes to speaking, writing and editing. 

“Not many women are encouraged to have jobs as engineers or directors,” Alpuche said. From what she’s learned, her advice to other girls interested in media and technology is simple. “Go ahead and try it. It may take a long time, but the outcome is really worth it.”