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How new world of virtual reality storytelling is transforming film fests

Major international film festivals are embracing a surge of virtual reality (VR) artworks accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic

A set of spotless cabins displaying posters on their elegantly built panels welcomes visitors to Hayy Jameel, an art complex and creative hub in Saudi Arabia’s historic port city of Jeddah. Hayy Jameel’s cabins are the equivalent of movie halls with a few exceptions. Each person here gets a dedicated tiny movie theatre that comes with a headset, headphone, and a controller. There are plenty of options to watch too, unlike just one offered in a traditional cinema. Welcome to the new world of virtual reality (VR) storytelling that is increasingly becoming an integral part of film festivals across the world.

At the inaugural edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah held during December 6-15, 21 VR artworks from around the world were presented in two separate competition and out of competition sections. Titled Red Sea Immersive, the VR segment of the festival represented a radical change sweeping across festival programming in several continents. At least five top festivals—Venice, Sundance, South by Southwest, Tribeca and the Red Sea festival—have added a VR category in recent years to engage audiences looking to experience art with cutting-edge technology.

Pushing boundaries

“It is an art that is so complimentary of the main festival programme, but also stands independently as a ground-breaking and boun-dary-pushing selection of work,” says Red Sea festival’s artistic director Edouard Waintrop, who previously headed the Directors’ Fortnight parallel programming in Cannes, about the VR works in official selection. Among the VR works in competition in Jeddah are Kusunda, an interactive work about the endangered Kusunda language in Nepal, Goliath: Playing with Reality, the true story of a man whose parents are diagnosed with schizophrenia, and Glimpse, the story of a talented illustrator who has just had a painful breakup with his girlfriend, a graceful deer who dreams of becoming a musician.

Most of the VR works produced today are backed by international teams with enormous experience and talent. Goliath stars British actor Tilda Swinton while Welsh actor Taron Egerton, who played Elton John in Rocketman, is the illustrator Herbie Turner in Glimpse. Glimpse is created by Irish director Benjamin Cleary who won the Best Live Action Short Film Oscar for Stutterer in 2016. An all-women jury of American avant-garde artist Laurie Anderson, BAFTA-winning director Victoria Mapplebeck and Sarah Mohanna Al Abdali, one of the first Saudi Arabian street artists, will decide the winner of the 13 VR works in Jeddah.

“The pandemic has prompted a lot of interest in VR works,” says Red Sea Immersive curator Liz Rosenthal. “The selection in Jeddah is truly one of the most exciting presentations of virtual experiences to have graced the festival circuit to date,” adds Rosenthal, also the curator of Venice VR at the Venice International Film Festival. According to a recent study, 70% of all VR users today bought a device in the last 12 months. A whopping 10.7 million VR headsets were sold so far this year with the number predicted to be 70.1 million by 2025.

A VR work was part of the Cannes festival official selection for the first time four years ago when acclaimed Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu presented his VR installation, Carne y Arena, on the plight of refugees. In a rare move, the Birdman and The Revenant director was presented with a special Oscar for his VR work in 2017. The same year Iñárritu showed Carne y Arena in Cannes, one of the first VR films to be made in India, was part of the Toronto festival’s five-film VR selection, again a first. The five-minute-long Right to Pray, directed by Khushboo Ranka and produced by Anand Gandhi, explored the protests by women against a long tradition that denied them entry to a temple in Trimbakeshwar in Maharashtra.

Artistic sensibilities

At the Sundance festival in the United States in January this year, 14 VR projects were part of the festival’s New Frontier programme while the Venice VR Expanded, a dedicated virtual reality programming launched five years ago by the world’s oldest film festival, is even giving away its famous Golden Lion award for the Best VR story. End of Night, a VR work from Denmark about a Danish man fleeing by boat to Sweden to escape Nazi occupation, won the Golden Lion in Venice in September. End of Night, part of the Red Sea Immersive selection, won praise both in Venice and Jeddah for its breathtaking interactive experience.

“The early VR projects were demos driven by technology not by storytelling. That has changed and there is an explosion of content today. Today’s VR works are not demos, but legitimate pieces of art,” says Michael Salmon, the producer of the Red Sea Immersive. The VR projects today are helmed by not one person, but a team of filmmakers, developers, gamers and animators. “It is a similar team if you are developing a game, but artistic sensibility comes with it,” adds the London-based Salmon.

“With virtual reality it is possible for a community such as the Kusunda to represent their culture and history in a spatial format,” says Gayatri Parameswaran, the co-creator of Kusunda, part of the competition section in Jeddah. “VR works are great as a tool for archiving stories so that successive generations can experience their ancestors’ past in a very special way,” adds the Berlin-based filmmaker, who was born and raised in Mumbai’s Dombivli suburb.

From the early VR days when viewers had to squeeze a thick mobile phone into a headset for viewing, virtual reality experience has come a long way. Today’s VR projects are viewed on Oculus Quest 2 headsets made by Facebook (Facebook, now Metaverse, bought Oculus in 2016) that offer a friendly experience without any distraction or disorientation. “Today’s VR headsets are stand alone equipment not tethered to a computer like before,” says Marc Lopato, co-founder of Diversion Cinema, a virtual reality event agency situated in Paris. Thanks to game-changing technology available today, more and more film festivals are showing VR projects as part of their official selection.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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