Amnesty International Hypnotized People to Make Them Feel the Full Horror of Being a Refugee

TBWA tries a new path to empathy

Amnesty International

Amnesty International in the Netherlands wanted people there to have a better understanding of what refugees suffer through. So it hypnotized them and walked them through it firsthand, as depicted in a new campaign from TBWA\Neboko.

In the five-minute video, five test subjects from the Netherlands and Belgium arrive in an empty warehouse. A hypnotherapist proceeds to seat them in a chair and place them in a hypnotic state. He then walks them through, in vivid and horrific detail, the trials of a young woman escaping Syria during its devastating civil war—a conflict still underway after nearly seven years.

The hypnotized subjects are invited to dig through rubble to find pieces of their siblings after rockets hit their homes. They are told they are leaving home without their families, and then fleeing police checkpoints with busloads of panicked people also trying to escape. They ride across a sea in a tiny boat in the freezing cold, and watch as men viciously attack another nearby vessel also packed with refugees. They arrive at a camp in Greece, starving, only to discover the little food left there is rotting.

Eventually, someone helps them apply for asylum in the Netherlands, and they are saved.

Throughout the ordeal, the subjects cower underneath the chair, and shiver in imaginary frigid temperatures, and scream for help. Eventually, when they awaken from the hypnotic state, they get the chance to meet Marwa—a young Syrian woman who actually experienced the entire story in real life. Several of them ask if they can give her a hug.

The authenticity of the dramatic pantomimes is, naturally, questionable at best. (The hypnotherapist, in a second trailer, describes the hypnosis itself as providing a state of changed awareness that allows the subjects to experience the suggested narrative emotionally, not just intellectually.)

But the fact is, it doesn’t really matter how staged the whole thing is. The real target is the audience watching the video, and the performance on screen forces viewers to imagine the events in a measured way, actually envisioning each new trauma as it slowly unfolds. The emotional responses of the actors are merely aids—further illustrations of how those traumas must, in fact, feel to experience.

In other words, it’s a clever little sleight-of-hand, with results that are surprisingly effective for what amounts to a gimmick—and unsurprisingly poignant, given the substance of the topic.

In its pacing, it’s arguably more effective than an explosion-laden, smoke-filled live-action rendition of the story described, especially given viewers are largely desensitized to wartime special effects—primed to treat them as fictional. Instead, the video asks its audience to actually consider, using thoughts—and empathy—what should be, but probably isn’t for many, immediately obvious: the sheer awfulness of what Marwa and millions of others like her in Syria alone have actually gone through.

“For most people, the hardship inflicted on refugees on their way to safety is hard to imagine,” says Eduard Nazarski, executive director of Amnesty International Netherlands. “When people really experience what it is like to be forced to flee, this can create understanding and could fundamentally change the way we speak about refugees.”

European countries have struggled in recent years to adjust to the influx of migrants fleeing the Syrian civil war and other conflicts—the Netherlands is no exception, with the country’s refugee and immigration policy contributing to a political stalemate that left it without a government last year for 208 days.

“By building fences and signing shameful deals with other countries to keep refugees away, politicians have revealed their true priority,” says Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International. “From Australia and the USA to countries across Europe, borders have been shut down to those in desperate need of safety and protection. Governments have not only closed borders; they have also closed their hearts—in contrast to many ordinary people. It is time for governments to face up to the task and offer safe and legal routes for people fleeing war and persecution to find safety.”