Painting Xinjiang’s Brutal Camps in 3D

A new VR documentary, “Reeducated,” uses illustration and witnesses to overcome secrecy.

8 men sit around a table in a Xinjiang internment camp.
A scene from the documentary "Reeducated." Matt Huynh/The New Yorker

When Erbaqyt Otarbai’s appendix ruptures, he is singing the Chinese national anthem with a class of fellow detainees. The pain is excruciating, almost unbearably so—but even as he later screams and cries on the operating table, it doesn’t seem like anybody cares. Then a guard approaches him.

“You won’t die,” the guard tells him. “And even if you die, no one will know about it.”

At the time, Otarbai was one of as many as 1 million Uyghurs and minorities systematically detained in China’s network of internment camps in Xinjiang, part of the country’s brutal, years-long crackdown on minority groups. Many reports have documented the atrocities perpetrated in the camps, but few give insight into the conditions inside—and none through the eyes of those who have experienced it first-hand.

This is the brilliance—and horror—of Reeducated, a new documentary developed by journalist Ben Mauk and director Sam Wolson. The film presents a haunting reconstruction of detention in the Xinjiang camps, using 360-degree virtual reality technology to place the viewer directly inside. (All that’s needed is a VR headset, which can cost as little as $5-10 for a cheap cardboard slide you put over your phone, though the film is still worth watching without one.)

The experience is immersive and jarring; it feels as if you’ve stepped straight into the memories of the film’s narrators, three former detainees. As they recount their experiences, their recollections swirl around you like watercolor, blotting and building until a complete picture of each scene is painted.

The experience is immersive and jarring; it feels as if you’ve stepped straight into the memories of the film’s narrators, three former detainees.

Reeducated is as haunting as it is artistically impressive. The film’s detailed black and white ink illustrations, hand-drawn by artist Matt Huynh, are intricate and gorgeous, and lace together a poignant, heartbreaking depiction of the narrators’ experiences.

The documentary weaves together the stories of Amanzhan Seituly, Orynbek Koksebek, and Erbaqyt Otarbai, three strangers who grew up in Xinjiang, moved to Kazakhstan, and later returned to China, at which point they were detained together in a camp in Tacheng, Xinjiang. Their first-hand narratives are vivid and stark, and become intertwined into one gut-wrenching depiction of life in the compounds.

The repression and atrocities in Xinjiang are well documented. A June 2020 Associated Press investigation found that the CCP was employing draconian tactics to cut Uyghur birth rates, including forcing IUD usage, sterilization, and abortion. In August 2020, Buzzfeed News used satellite images to reveal that China had secretly constructed at least 260 new structures to hold Uyghur and other minorities. Former detainees, and a few Uyghur forced to work as guards or attendants, have been giving grim accounts of the camps since early 2018, a few months after the first camps were opened in late 2017. According to the film, it is “likely the largest mass internment of ethnic and religious minorities since the Second World War.”

But even with these reports, challenges in procuring internal photographic evidence have limited understandings of the conditions inside. (And as we learn in Reeducated, detainees must promise to never tell the “outside world” about their experiences when they’re released. Contact with foreigners is one of the more frequent reasons for detention in the first place.) These issues aren’t just faced by those who study the Xinjiang camps: According to historian Frank Dikotter, there also is no unvarnished photographic evidence of the Great Leap Forward—which resulted in the deaths of at least 45 million people—despite an abundance of staged photographs and propaganda from the time.

Without film or photographs from inside the camps, Huynh’s detailed ink illustrations, reminiscent of calligraphy, fill in the missing picture. Depictions of Seituly, Koksebek, and Otarbai’s memories were created after listening to countless interviews with former detainees, studying satellite imagery, and using other reports.

“There’s not a terrible amount [of information] out there…[and] what’s out there is quite disputed, so we had to be quite discerning,” Huynh told Foreign Policy. “There was a lot of cross referencing what was out there and seeing what felt closer to what we heard from these men and from the other detainees.”

The result is a sweeping snapshot of life inside the Tacheng camps. One scene brings us into the men’s crowded chambers, where nine or 10 people, and sometimes even 13 or 15, are crammed into a small room with four bunk beds and a gated door. Their room is furnished with a Chinese flag, two eye-shaped surveillance cameras, and a TV that blasts two hours of President Xi Jinping programming every day. Every morning, they wake at 6:30 am Beijing time, and must sing Chinese songs and copy Mandarin characters out of a thick book. “The light is always on,” Otarbai says. “You can’t see your own shadow.”

Without film or photographs from inside the camps, Huynh’s detailed ink illustrations, reminiscent of calligraphy, fill in the missing picture.

A sense of anxiety, and desperation, permeates their stories. Seituly, Koksebek, and Otarbai struggle to comprehend why they’re being detained—and what they can do to hasten their release, if anything. “Orynbek was beaten up a lot, because his Chinese was so bad,” one person recalls. “As he was sobbing, I tried to calm him down. I told him, people who don’t speak Chinese are being released too. Don’t be sad.”

And nobody knows what will happen to them. “I was scared,” another says. “I was thinking to myself, why was I taken here? I am innocent. When will I be released?”

China refers to these camps as “reeducation centers,” and Seituly, Koksebek, and Otarbai are indeed forced to attend classes where a teacher—flanked by two policemen armed with rifles—lectures them behind prison-like iron bars. Each classroom can accommodate 80 or 90 students, and doors are locked during lessons. Day after day, they’re admonished about the ills of religion—which their professor compares to “opium”—and are told that not smoking or drinking is indicative of extremism.

Although Reeducated is just 20 minutes long, no minute is wasted. Every new revelation packs a punch that hits harder than the previous one. At certain points, the film can be overwhelming to watch, especially as you experience the camps through the narrators’ eyes. But it’s impossible to look away—and doing so feels like a betrayal of the suffering they endured.

Seituly, Koksebek, and Otarbai are among those released from the camps, some of whom, like them, have been able to escape to other countries like Kazakhstan. But the documentary is a reminder that China is still using, and building, a vast network of incarceration throughout Xinjiang, of which the camps are just one part. Many countries and organizations have characterized the camps and other repressive measures in Xinjiang as acts of genocide, and a report released Tuesday contends that they violate every provision in the U.N. Genocide Convention. But China has consistently denied these allegations. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has dismissed them as “preposterous,” and Chinese media has launched a propaganda campaign against researchers and witnesses, including attempts to paint women who say they were raped, or witnessed rape, as having “bad character.”

“We have been clear and I’ve been clear that I see [the internment camps] as genocide, other egregious abuses of human rights, and we’ll continue to make that clear,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared on Thursday. “The more China hears not just our opprobrium but a chorus of opprobrium from around the world, the better the chance that we’ll get some changes.”

Until then, the Uyghur and minorities in the Xinjiang camps will continue to suffer. In one scene in Reeducated, 400 detainees are taken outside of the center, group by group. Outside, guards with rifles yell and force them to squat in rows; they then shackle their ankles and cover their faces with black hoods. “We thought they were going to shoot us there,” one person recalls. But then they board buses.

“There were different rumors that the people staying behind would soon be released, and we, who were being transferred, would stay in prison forever.”

Christina Lu is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei