Ben Khelifa’s “The Enemy” – Blade Runner becoming real

“Is it possible to invent a new way to make the audience care, to have them think more deeply about war?” 

by Annabella Stieren

Karim Ben Khelifa has seen war. Enough of it to understand human nature and the reasons for killing, enough of it to be frustrated probably; to lose faith in humanity. As an award-winning photographer he captured the world’s most horrible conflicts for almost 15 years. Still, he hasn’t found the solution of how to fight an ever-more apathetic audience. For his new project “The Enemey” he takes drastic measures on his mission to recreate empathy. With the help of highly sensitive virtual reality headset that looks like black diving-goggles with insect antannae the paricipant is thrown directly in between two combat enemies. Both of them are three-dimensional manifestations in true-to-life size, while looking at the participant they each share what drove them to take up arms against the other.

Dick's novel from the 1960ies - A glimse into today's reality? Credit: Youngpublishing.
Dick’s novel from the 1960ies – A glimse into today’s reality? Credit: Youngpublishing.

With the help of professors and researchers from the DMIT he also wants to measure the participant’s neuro-physioligical response to the encounters, hoping that with the newest neurological science he will be able to maesure how much empathy the participator feels for the virtual combats.

The question, however, is if we can really create empathy for something virtual, something that is obviousely not real in that particular moment but exists somewhere far from our own reality. It somehow seems like a scene from Phillip K. Dick’s science-fiction novel: ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’, which later made into the movie Blade Runner. In Dick’s imagined world only the ability for empathy seperates humans from androids. It can be measured with a particular machine the “Voigt-Kampff – apparatus”. Khelifa’s project shows that today we are not that far from the dystopia Dick has created almost 50 years ago. It might also be a glimspe into the future where journalist must rely on androids to tell us the stories of our fellow humans when moving pictures do not do the job anymore.

Karim Ben Khelifa a Belgian Tunesian photo jurnalisy. Credit: Courtesy of Ben Khelifa.
Karim Ben Khelifa a Belgian Tunesian photo jurnalisy. Credit: Courtesy of Ben Khelifa.

Khelifa is following a current trend in documentary-filmmaking: the trend of interactive engagement with the viewer. The days of watching documentaries in the theatres are over. If it is not for a festival, or an extraordinary documentary-fetish, an ordinary person watches a documentary online on his or her laptop, sometimes even on a mobile-device. Much of the magic gets lost on the way: The beauty and ferocity of reality visiable in the details on a huge screen and the little shiver one feels listening to human emotions that are not staged. Recreating this experience on 13-15 inches is a huge challenge for today’s filmmakers. Luckily, the technological progress is on their side as recent experiments with 360- footage and virtual reality documentaries show.

IN LIMBO for instance is a web documentary that is augmented and personalized with excerpts from each viewer’s own online life each time it is watched. This project reflects on what happens with the data we produce and the identities we develop online. The viewer engages, interacts with the footage in the way that his own data (LinkedIN profile data, Birthdate, Cities lived in etc.) is projected into the documentary: A somewhat scary, yet fascinating way of portraying everybody’s digital footstep.

Most of the approaches are creative and visually stimulating but do not answer the Khelifa’s crucial question of how to generate human feelings. His frustration is a known phenomena to journalists who try to capture disasters, death and violence. While pictures can’t shock, and stories don’t create empathy or understanding anymore Andrew Grace from the Washington Post, for instance, recently tried to make people become an active part in a disaster. He launched a 12 minutes interactive web-documentary essay, in which he takes the viewer through the personal experience of surviving a natural disaster, a tornado.

The Virtual reality glasses. Credit: Courtesy of Karim Ben Khelifa.


At the crossroads of science, technology and journalism and humanity

Khelifa’s project goes even beyond that shared experience, beyond informing people about a certain topic or disaster. Khelifa wants to change the way we perceive people. He writes:

Though we may not agree with the combatants, we need to see them as human beings.

The characters of “The Enemy” will be fighters from Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Congo, South Sudan, North and South Korea, Myanmar, and El Salvador. Khelifa has conducted interviews with them over the years. Neither of the sides is right, no opinion is better that the other, the project stays neutral. In a previous project: Portraits of the enemy he already tried to show that often the commonalities overweigh the differences. He says that by meeting one’s enemy, having a conversation and understanding their motives the fear gets lost. The enemy is often a social construct which can be broken through dialoge. With the virtual enemy that is trying to explain why he or she hates “the other” he takes the next step for what can be called his new life-long mission.

We all want the same things, and we’re all fighting for survival. That’s what I, as a storyteller and a journalist, want to address.


Most of Khelifa’s audience will (hopefully) never have to fight themselves, nor get to know “the enemies”. Can they feel empathy for a virtual illusion in front of them? In Dick’s novel xx has feelings for an android, empathy and even falls in love with it. In the real world a prototype of Khelia’s project was launched at the Tribeca Film festival in April 2015. The reported reactions confirm the power of virtual reality: People with no personal strings or attachment to the conflict started crying – Maybe human empathy is not lost yet.


Khelifa’s virtual reality project wil soon tour the world. Additionally there will be a mobile and tablet app that allows users to confront their own notions of “enemy” and “empathy” and to deepen their knowledge of the world’s most long-standing conflicts. To stay tuned about the project, you can subsribe to a newsletter on The Enemy”


Feature image: Photo taken during the creation of The Enemy. Crdit: Courtesy of Karim Ben Khelifa.