Welcome to Prison X
Chapter 1, THE DEVIL AND THE SUN
Heavy doors open and you are swept into the surreal world of Prison X, an infamous Bolivian jail inside a Neo-Andean underworld. As you navigate amongst devils, saints, wicked characters, corrupt prison guards and even a Western filmmaker, you have to hang onto your soul so La Diabla doesn't snatch it away.
The eccentric deity The Jaguaress greets you at the velvet curtain gateway between theater and lived experience. She casts you as Inti, a young man who dreamed of being a drug lord but ended up in prison after his first job as a mule for la blanca.
Prison X is an immersive Andean mythological play that sweeps you into a labyrinthine Bolivian prison, where you coexist with devils, saints, corrupt prison guards, and even a Western filmmaker.
Premiering at Sundance New Frontier
Watch on tethered VR headset
January 30 2021
La Tía, or La Diabla, arrived with the Spaniards. Greedy for power, gold and money, La Diabla hungers for fresh souls.
The first character you meet is The Jaguaress. The Jaguaress greets you inside the theatre. An Indigenous female director, she has the power to tell her own stories, and invites you into this world so you can get a taste of colonization's destructive trail.
Inti is the ancient sun god. Caught on the border of Argentina smuggling cocaine and sentenced to eight years in prison, he yearns to be free.
Quilla is the goddess of the moon, and Inti's younger sister. They grew up in El Chapare on their parents' coca farm. She wants to get her brother out of prison.
Dan Magpie wants to steal other people's stories and make a film and win an Oscar.
Supay is the prison guard looking for bribes and any chance to see a prisoner suffer.
Careful and afraid, Juki cleans the prison. He naively awaits his trial to prove it.
Nuna is 157 but lies, saying she's only 90. She competes with the devil for attention.
The Making of Prison X
In 2010, we started shooting our documentary film Cocaine Prison inside San Sebastian Prison in Cochabamba, Bolivia. A microcosm complete with a hardware store, a chapel, a school, and markets, over 1,000 prisoners and their families live inside.
During the four years we spent working inside the prison, we always wanted to share what it was like and how it was to navigate this labyrinth of ad-hoc walls and contradictory ideas. For many prisoners, their only means of escape was their imaginations. With Prison X, we offer people a different way of experiencing prison, that might lead them to question what it means to be free or imprisoned, decolonized.
Building the Story World
Prison X draws on our experiences in San Sebastian Prison and Andean mythology to blur the lines between fiction and reality. The prison we've built in VR juxtaposes the giant with the miniature, reality with fantasy, and the contemporary with the ancient. The shifts in scale reflect two Neo-Andean traditions: Las Alasitas, where people buy miniature versions of the things they want hoping that Ekeko (the God of Abundance) will convert dreams to reality; and the Carnaval of Oruro, where people honour Ito (Mother Earth) by dancing La Diablada (the Devil's Dance) with big and spectacular costumes.
Creating a virtual version of the prison involved a lot of experimentation. We started by creating a 3D computer model using photogrammetry. Bolivian model maker Jair Ronald Ayma Inocente helped us make a physical scale model, while artist Olivia Barron made the initial illustrations. We then created a 3D version of Inti's cell, and then the main courtyard that forms the basis for the first episode of Prison X.
Inspired by people we had met in San Sebastian jail, Berlin-based Bolivian fashion designer Maria Corvera Vargas conceptualised the characters of Prison X. Rilda Paco, a Bolivia-based artist and journalist, hand-painted the characters in three dimensions with a virtual reality painting tool, bringing them to life inside the virtual world. A version of La Diabla, the devil-god worshipped by miners in the Andes was created with a 3D-printed animatronics puppet and workshopped at the MIT Open Documentary Lab in 2019.
When we first started Prison X in 2015, the technology didn't exist to create what we imagined. So we created our own motion capture studio with motion trackers available with consumer VR gear, strapping them to our bodies. But this made our characters move like robots in dire need of some WD-40. Luckily, technology was developing rapidly and in 2017, mo-cap suits were released by the Copenhagen-based company Rokoko. Compared to what we started out with, this new suit allowed us to bring more movement, quirk and personality to the Prison X characters.
Sounds exist all around us, even if we're not aware of them. But how do you recreate that in a virtual world? For our sound artists Roly Elias and Citizen Kay, it was a process of trial and error to fill the Prison X world with all the everyday sounds that allow us to orient ourselves. After some experimentation, they began to compose directly inside their VR headsets, creating and directing a world of spatialized sound.