In 2007, Mengtai Zhang spent a month in one of China’s notorious drug addiction camps.
The Chinese government, which considered internet addiction a public health crisis in the early 2000s, has treated the so-called “electric heroin” and “spiritual opium” of video games in a way that borders on the inhuman and the cruel, according to Zhang.
“In my experience, there was a lot of crazy stuff going on, and while I was there, I didn’t think they were really doing research on internet addiction,” he said. “I think if my parents knew that, they wouldn’t have sent me there.”
Zhang, whose parents determined he was an internet-addicted teenager who needed help, felt that many children sent to these camps were not addicted to the internet, but used it to escape a turbulent family dynamics.
“In my own experience, my parents had been fighting for a divorce for quite a long time, and while I was in the camp, I met many patients who were also experiencing family disputes.”
That was one of the issues Zhang wanted to highlight with “Diagnosia,” an immersive virtual reality documentary that’s part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program.
“I’ve had this idea since 2018,” he said. “When the news about gambling disorder was recognized as a formal mental disorder by the WHO, I was quite shocked, as I didn’t quite see it as a mental disorder.”
So Zhang decided not only to reflect on her own experience, but also to do her own research on internet addiction in China and around the world.
“His first project was a two-video animated installation that told his experience in an abstract way,” said Lemon Guo, lead artist, producer, composer and sound designer of “Diagnosia”. “It was based on his experience, but more in line with a short story about a man escaping from a drug camp.”
This video still contained immersive elements, according to Zhang.
“The audience was sandwiched between two big screens, and they could walk around and decide what they wanted to watch,” he said. “I kept in mind this idea of immersiveness and how to allow people to experience it in first person.”
The project’s next interaction was a web-based VR experience.
“People could log on and write about what they thought about the internet,” he said. “It was a short experiment, so we decided to develop it further.”
Sponsorship of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2020 gave Zhang and Guo the boost needed to make “Diagnosia” a full virtual reality experience.
“We also got additional funding from a New York organization called Wayfair, so we were able to get some extra help with coding and 3D modeling,” Guo said.
The two, with the help of programmer Ethan Edwards, who helped with the coding, finished the project in 2021, in time to premiere it at the IDFA.
Zhang and Guo overcame many challenges to bring “Dianosia” to the IDFA.
A huge undertaking was to write history, Guo said.
“In 2018, Mengtai wrote a memoir that detailed her entire experience in the camp,” she said. “So we started there.”
Zhang also wanted viewers to have a comfortable VR experience.
“People who don’t have a lot of experience with virtual reality might get motion sickness,” he said. “So we tried to limit the length of each segment to 20 or 30 minutes. And me and Lemon spent a lot of time deciding which parts went where.
“That meant we had to boil down an entire month of camp into 30-minute stories,” Guo said. “A challenge for virtual reality is that you can’t cut between scenes the same way you can with film. We had to figure out how to build a limited number of scenes and make things happen in the scenes.
Both also had to learn to code.
“There’s a lot of coding, but luckily we had Ethan, who joined us later and helped us with some of the tricky parts,” Guo said.