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Filmmaker Chen Yi Jung adapts Freud’s study of Dora into virtual reality experience that promotes empathy for his patient

Dora director Chen Yi Jung
Taiwanese director Chen Yi Jung re-imagined Freud's famous case of Dora for the 21st century.

One of Sigmund Freud’s more famous case studies involved an 18-year-old he called Dora. The founder of psychoanalysis diagnosed that she was suffering from “hysteria”. Moreover, through dream analysis, Freud concluded that her condition was triggered by a repressed lesbian attraction to the wife of a family friend who had propositioned her.

This case study, which is riddled with the sexism of the times, fascinates Taipei filmmaker Chen Yi Jung. So much so that she has created an immersive virtual-reality project, Dora, which enables audience members to experience the partially paralyzed teen’s hypnosis, dreams, and treatment. The primary character, Dora, undergoes all this in a theatre filled with onlookers.

“In movies, we all know that the audience has to receive information from the director, frame-by-frame,” Chen tells Pancouver over Zoom. “In VR, the director invites the audience to co-create and experience. The director leads them into an environment, often narrated in the first-person perspective.”

She reveals that she filmed the actors in front of a green screen. Then she removed this background and placed them into production.

“We also took photos and a scan of 2-D objects, then animated them to create scenes with many layers,” Chen explains. “The audience can move between layers and interact with objects to trigger Dora’s memories. And the layered effect also creates cool distortion and peeping views, making the experience more interesting.”

The director believes that virtual reality is an ideal medium to reconstruct dreams because both unfold from a first-person perspective.

Chen’s first chapter of Dora debuted at the 2023 Kaohsiung Film Festival. She will offer the entire 30-minute production at the same festival this October.

Chen Yi Jung uses animation to help convey what Dora experienced.

Dora interacts with real actors

Currently in Dora, only one person at a time can experience being a patient.

“But we are developing a version of multiplayers who will experience MR [mixed reality]—merged immersive,” Chen says. “It combines theatre with the real actors…so, people can put on the headset, use the theatre function, and make a scene.

“The real actor plays in front of them,” she continues. “Then, we will close the theatre function and the audience can also enter in the VR environment.”

The director emphasizes that Freud brought a distinctly male perspective to his treatment of Dora.

“He focused a lot on sex when exploring her dreams, often interpreting them in blunt ways,” Chen states. “He reveals her sexual secrets and mentions them to her.”

In those days, she says, people believed that only men had the divine power to heal. Furthermore, Chen maintains that society persecuted women by controlling their fertility and education. Religion and medicine offered up theories about immorality, diverting attention from unsolvable problems.

Chen points out that the English word “hysteria” comes from a Greek word, hystera, which means “uterus”.

“Hysterical passions have dramatic and mental symptoms similar to theatre,” she states. “It mostly affected young, unmarried women. People thought hysteria was caused by issues with the uterus.”

Now, more than a century later, most physicians don’t accept hysteria as a diagnosis.

Last year at the Kaohsiung Film Festival, some men put themselves in the role of Dora. As a result, they could experience medical discrimination meted out to women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Actually, I would like the men, especially the men in the audience, to feel the uncomfortable experience from Dora,” Chen says.

Dora‘s sets include surrealistic art, which was influenced by the rise of psychoanalysis.

Studying in France

Chen sees parallels between the early days of psychology and film. Both emerged in the late 19th century and both were taken seriously by scientists.

Freud learned about hypnosis in Paris from 19th-century French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who died in 1893. Two years later, the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, screened their first projected film in Paris. In the 20th century, Freud’s theories influenced some screenwriters.

Chen studied Freud while attending Université Lumière Lyon 2, including how his theory of the subconscious influenced the development of contemporary collage art. She includes this surrealistic imagery in Dora for the visualization of dreams.

“When I studied film in France, we used psychoanalysis to analyze movies,” Chen says. “So, in one class, the professor compared the performance of silent film actors to the facial expressions and bodies of historical patients.”

According to Chen, film education in France differs significantly from what’s offered in film schools in the United States.

“We don’t learn filmmaking techniques because we think technique can be learned after entering the industry,” she says. “So, French film education focuses on talent and who can think and create independently. We spend a lot of time studying esthetics, philosophy, film history, psychology or sociology.”

Before creating anything, Chen engages in extensive research. She underpins her work with a solid theoretical foundation, whether that’s through literature, history, gender studies, or religion.

“This research really supports my work as a director and makes me feel secure and comfortable in my creative process,” Chen declares.

Watch Chen Yi Jung’s pitch for Dora on YouTube.

Making films with meaning

In addition to her virtual-reality project, Chen directs conventional films. Her first full-length feature, Granny Must Die, addresses intergenerational issues through the lens of absurd fantasies. She quips that her film is not about everyone wanting to kill their grandmother.

“This is a story about finding ways to have conversation between the elderly who need care and their families,” Chen says.

Next year, she will shoot her second feature film, The Grandmaster’s Gift, which addresses searing political divisions in Taiwan. Set in the early 2000s, one of the central characters is a former Nationalist soldier who is a grandmaster of Chinese chess. He meets a boy, whose father is a taxi driver and a single dad.

The former soldier moved from China to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek’s forces after the Nationalists lost the Chinese Civil War. He lives in a community of Nationalist war veterans who ardently support the Kuomintang. This party, founded by Chiang, is far more interested in rapprochement with China than the sovereigntist Democratic People’s Party, which held the presidency in the early 2000s.

In the upcoming film, the former soldier has intense disagreements with the taxi driver, who supports Taiwanese independence. But they find a way to live together, thanks to the little boy.

As a filmmaker, Chen doesn’t have big goals or an over-arching philosophy.

“I think life is short, and every project I work on is a trade of my time and energy,” she says. “So, it’s important that each one is interesting and meaningful. This way, my work stays real. I can put my energy into stories and ideas that truly matter to me—and hopefully to my audience, too.”

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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