Project description

Our project is the 360 reconstruction of the inside of the Venezuelan intelligence agency’s feared headquarters.

El Helicoide is an amazing building which resembles a spaceship and was meant to be a luxurious, innovative and unique shopping centre back in the 50’s.

But it never opened its doors… and now is a prison in the centre of Caracas where detainees are tortured.

The aim of doing this piece is to shed light on the human rights violations which take place in the Venezuela in the XXI century.

The last dictatorship in Venezuela ended in 1958, yet, during the government of Nicolas Maduro, the successor of late president Hugo Chavez, there have been reports of prisoners being victims of torturing techniques, like asphyxiation, electric shocks, beatings and hangings. All inside El Helicoide.

Detainees and family members have also endured psychological torture, so extreme in some cases, that led a 64-year-old political prisoner to take his own life.

Living conditions are appaling. The luxurious stores turned into cells, and at some point, there were more than 300 people living in a place which could host around 40. In spaces of 12 square meters, 50 people would sleep on the floor with no access to sanitation. They were locked inside and would be kept inside for days in a row.

The goal is to show this unknown reality to audiences around the world, particularly in the UK, Latin America and Russia. There’s a version of this piece in English, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian.

A text version of this piece was also published on various BBC’s languages services like Arabic, Gujarati, Hausa, Yoruba, Hindi, Burmese, Vietnamese and Afrique.

What makes this project innovative?

It is the first time a project like this has been done. There isn’t a reconstruction of a governmental prison as unusual as El Helicoide, with the level of detail and accuracy this piece has. Not just from the point of view of the infrastructure and the way the building is inside, but also from what happens to those detained there. A very unique feature is that it also includes the testimony of members of the intelligence agency. After seeing the piece, one of them said the reconstruction was 95% accurate. And many of the detainees interviewed were impressed at the level of detail, they said they went back in time when they explored the spaces recreated. From the user experience perspective, the way it was done allows a very personal interaction as the viewers decide what they want to see and when while being “inside” the headquarters of the secretive intelligence agency. Key spaces inside the building, fundamental to understand what happens inside, were reconstructed in 360, which means users can explore the building as they wish. Within each one of the prison’s areas which were recreated, there are “hotspots” with additional information to have a deeper understanding of how life is in El Helicoide presented in the most suitable format for that specific content: text, video or pictures. And at the centre of everything are the stories of those whose lives changed forever after been mistreated while in El Helicoide.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

With this project we wanted to explore a new way of storytelling. The experiment was very successful as it became the most viewed pilot on BBC Taster, a platform where innovative pieces are hosted. It was so popular that at some point the system crashed because it couldn’t cope with the high demand. We don’t yet have all the data about performance, but what we have shows that the audience engaged with it. - 51% found the experience somewhat easy to navigate, which is good considering it is the first time something like this project had been done. - 41% of audience would choose to consume this story in this interactive 'mixed-mode' format, over any other type, like a video, a 3D animation or an article. So far, it has been viewed more than 4 million times. When it was published the story caused the biggest spike in Google searches for “El Helicoide”, since the prison riots in May 2018, which was a very big event. The project started a conversation about 'El Helicoide', which wasn't happening before the publication. The top word associated with the name of the building was BBC. On Social Media, during the first three days, there was a 71% positive sentiment overall. 50% positive Facebook 74% positive on Twitter In the 3 days before publication, average mentions of El Helicoide across social were 505 per day. In the 3 full days since the average is 7,576, which is 15 times higher. The story was shared on Twitter by influencers and politicians like the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Colombian ex-president, Alvaro Uribe Velez and the General Secretary of the Organisation of the American States, Luis Almagro.

Source and methodology

In order to recreate the interior of El Helicoide as accurate as possible, around 25 people who have been inside the building or know it somehow, were interviewed. Detainees, family members, intelligence officers who also were also guarding the prisoners, defense lawyers, human rights activists, people who have done research on the building and even an architect who worked in El Helicoide. The account of the events the detainees gave were similar, which allowed us to corroborate testimonies regarding torture and living conditions. Their memories of their time inside were also helpful to understand how the building is inside. We spent around three days with each one of the guards and one of the detainees to gather precise information about life inside El Helicoide. We used different resources to make sense of the place, due to the nature of the story we couldn’t enter the building. We did drawings of the memories of the interviewees, ask them to draw how they remember the spaces and they used steps to try and give us a sense of the dimensions of the spaces. We also had access to original plans of the building as well as the stylish promotion brochures which helped us to understand the complexity and layout of the construction. On top of that we had access to exclusive material sent by political detainees from inside El Helicoide: videos, pictures and audios. Reports prepared by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the OAS, UN, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Venezuelan NGOs like Una Ventana a la Libertad and Foro Penal were also used.

Technologies Used

Cinema 4D Octane Render

Project members

Karenina Velandia Charlie Newland Jenny Norton ---- Cecilia Tombesi Alice Grenie Kelvin Brown




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