Spotlight: Virtual Reality at the One World Human Rights Film Festival 2016

The sight that greeted me as I entered the Interactive Documentaries booth set up at Kino Lucerna, one of the venues of the One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Prague, was both strange and funny. Two youngsters, who wore giant-sized goggles, were slowly rotating 360 degrees on a stool and looking all around them. Apparently, they did not look for something, rather they were looking at something. Even though at times they looked right at me, they did not seem to be seeing me at all. They moved as if in a trance, slowly and seductively. To someone who had not experienced this virtual reality-induced stupor ever, all this was a bit too much to grasp. The festival staff at the booth reassured me that the two were watching some games, and I could wait for my turn while watching the other interactive documentaries on offer.

The first film I watched at the booth was THE DEEPER THEY BURY ME (2015) by Angad Bhalla and Ted Biggs. Telling the story of Herman Wallace, a prisoner who spent 40 years of his life in solitary confinement, possibly the longest time served in the world, the film pans out as a telephone call from prison. We are drawn into Herman’s world with nothing but just a computer monitor and a pair of headphones. The moment we answer his call, the clock starts ticking. There is 20 minutes at hand – exactly the same time that a prisoner is allowed to spend on phone calls every week at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. We slowly discover the claustrophobic world that Herman lived in. As he describes his tiny room in prison, a crude black and white hand-drawn image supplements it on screen. The film is not just a tour of Herman’s existence in prison, it also shows us his dreams, explained in his own words. It was when Herman met artist Jackie Sumell that he began dreaming again. Confronted by her question about what his dream house looked like, Herman, who had spent 40 years of his life in a 6-by-9-foot cell, actively began putting down his thoughts on this. Respectively, this interactive documentary was inspired by a feature-length documentary made on Herman and his dream home.

What is the difference between an interactive and a normal documentary, the uninitiated may wonder. It is definitely a different kind of experience, one that makes you feel like you are in control. Unlike feature films that are played out to the audience according to the filmmaker’s plan and vision, and are almost always being watched in the company of others, interactive films give viewers a chance to find their own way through these projects. There is a sense of agency, as the films are often divided into chapters or sections that are independent of each other and can be watched with just a little awareness about the general context. So viewers can choose what they want to see or not.

Another main difference is that viewers become a part of the story. In THE DEEPER THEY BURY ME, they are with whomever Herman is directly conversing with. In Rosemarie Lerner’s and Maria Court’s ambitious web project QUIPU (2015), we get an insight into one of history’s most traumatic phenomena – forced sterilization. We hear the stories of hundreds of women from Peru, recorded in their own voices, narrating their experience and travail having undergone the operations, which are mostly performed under unhygienic conditions and with little or no after-surgery care. It is a chilling look at the way a government suppresses and regulates the common men and women of a society, thus denying them the freedom of making a decision about their own bodies. What is interesting in QUIPU is that the viewer can not just listen to these stories but also send a message back to these women to let them know that their voices are being heard around the world. This puts viewers in a rather powerful position of being able to touch the lives of a population half way around the world through just their voices. Likewise, in LAHORE LANDING(2015), a student project made by Singaporean university students and helmed by Jeremy Ho, the viewers decide which of the spirited Pakistani youngsters they want to follow in order to experience the real feel of the country and its people. The film shows that it is not all terrorism, extremism, and political instability in Pakistan as the news would like us to believe. There is also art, hope, and activism powered by the younger generation that keeps Pakistan going.

Such films also make it clear that cinema is ever-changing. The big screen is no longer the only medium to tell affecting stories. Whatever the medium might be, all the films in the he Interactive Documentaries category were as – and sometimes more powerful than – the other documentaries screened at the festival. And this could be because of the part viewers play in the narrative. For instance, in Ryan Green’s touching game/film THAT DRAGON, CANCER (and the accompanying 2015 documentary by David Osit and Malika Zouhali-Worrall THANK YOU FOR PLAYING), viewers are taken through the story of Green’s own son Joel and his terminal illness. We see Joel, we are asked to make him play – on a swing, a toy horse, a carousel, among other things – as we are told his story in bits and pieces. Sometimes Joel is stuck mid-ocean on a boat, waiting for our help, and sometimes viewers are the ones who are stuck in a hospital room with Green who is trying to console a crying Joel. Viewers feels helpless as nothing can stop Joel from crying, and in some way experience a bit of the exasperation and powerlessness that Joel’s parents may have felt while taking care of a terminally ill child. THAT DRAGON, CANCER definitely leaves the viewer shaken, as we realize at the end the inevitable truth that how much ever we may try, we would not be able to get the child out of his tragic state.

This analogy, although too basic, can be applied to the medium of interactive documentary as well. Although we feel a strong sense of agency while watching these films, we only realize slowly that we are watching exactly what the filmmakers want us to. The beginning, the middle and the end of the stories are well-defined and the authors are just using a different medium to make viewers feel more powerful. And this is best explained by Brett Gaylor’s documentary DO NOT TRACK (2015). Hammering in the awareness to viewers that they are being watched every time they log on to the internet, this highly interactive and interesting take on digital privacy and surveillance issues is a must-watch. As you read this piece, do you know how many websites are watching you, mapping your online movements, collecting your private data, and using it to make money or supplying it to sources that may use it for activities that can have fatal consequences? DO NOT TRACK helps you find this out. By giving them basic information about your internet usage, they let you find out who is tracking you. But on just a bit more thought, it becomes clear that such a witch-hunt is possible only if the filmmakers are also able to track you. At the end of this thoughtful film, we are left wondering if online privacy does even exist in today’s world.

After watching these interactive documentaries, it is time for me to experience my very first virtual reality film. The lady in charge of the booth helps me with the goggles, which has a smartphone placed inside it, just at eye level. Those with defective vision, like me, can adjust the clarity of the screen till it becomes clear by turning a knob on top of the goggles. As the first film begins, I am at a subway station in London. It just blows my mind off. With the screen that close to the face, the film becomes frameless. It is everywhere around me. I could look up, down, sideways, or behind me and I would be able to get a good view of the people and the happenings around me. You feel that you are somehow physically present in the environment that the filmmaker has created for you, one that is inherently fake, yet so believable. In Darren Emerson’s film, WITNESS 360° 7/7(2015), which makes us relive the London subway bombings through the voice (and eyes) of one of the survivors, we are literally, although virtually, placed at the spot of action. We wait for the train to arrive, hop on to it with other commuters, some looking right at you (or the camera), and wait for the imminent blasts to happen, as we know what is to come from the survivor’s voiceover. We get a nice look at the people in the subway, how they were all caught unaware doing what they do every day, as part of a routine. After the blasts, we are left alone in the middle of nowhere, as the survivor recounts her physical and emotional journey back to safety and sanity. It is at once traumatic and claustrophobic, because we are also stuck with the victims not knowing what to do.

Viewers will experience a similar kind of uneasiness while watching Hayoun Kwon’s film DMZ: MEMORIES OF A NO MAN’S LAND (2015). The film takes viewers to a place where it is forbidden to go and we would not have ended up otherwise. It is a journey through a soldier’s memories of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a strip of land that separates North Korea from South Korea. We travel through restricted areas, sometimes jumping barbed wires and braving wild boars that are waiting to attack. Being someone who is scared of heights, the film was a bit of a traumatic experience for me, as the camera sometimes takes us to heights, inducing a sense of flying above trees, and at others takes us deep into the waters. We are guided by the voice of the soldier, who reveals more and more about DMZ with each chapter. The immersiveness of this experience was no doubt novel but not always pleasant for me as a viewer.

With the next film in line, I started wondering whether every story needed to be told through VR. In Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s WAVES OF GRACE (2015), we are shown the story of Decontee Davis, a young survivor of the Ebola fever, and her village inhabited by many other victims of the disease. Although made with the best intentions, the filmmakers seem to be a bit confused about where to place the viewer in this story. Sometime we see things through Davis’s eyes, and at times she is in front of us. It does give us a feel of being in the Liberian village, but more than once during the film we wonder why. Why could not this story be told as a “normal” documentary? What does turning it into a virtual reality film add to it?

After binge-watching these interactive documentaries and VR films, I was left with the kind of motion sickness that the internet warned me of – cyber sickness. As the screen is too close to the eye and because of constantly moving one’s head, there are chances that one might feel nauseous and experience terrible headaches. This is the reason why most of the VR films are no more than 10-minute long. Another thing that left me wondering was the ever romanticized notion of film viewing being both a community/group experience yet at the same time – a highly distinctive individual experience. With the onset of VR films, the community is slowly disappearing from the film viewing equation. The exercise of watching a film is becoming more and more individual-centric, with equipment, too, being designed to encourage solo viewing. As a nascent medium of cinema, VR has its own advantages and also raises quite a few doubts. However, there is no denying that it is transforming the act of watching films like never before. Our presence is becoming ever-looming, as we are now breaking off from theatre seats and have managed to find a place right in the middle of all the action. The only request I have for filmmakers is not to be swayed away by this new technological wonder too much so that they end up using it where it is not called for. Go on, we are waiting for your stories, but let these stories choose their own medium.


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