Strap on a headset and find yourself on a flooding island halfway around the world or in the body of a Homeland Security interrogator.
Virtual reality offers intriguing possibilities for documentaries. Before the advent of workable VR, many saw cinema as the medium with the most potential to transport the audience. Now, you can strap on a headset and find yourself anywhere, whether it’s on an island halfway around the world or in someone else’s headspace.
At the Camden International Film Festival, the Storyforms program incorporated over a dozen different documentary VR shorts, showcasing this promise. CIFF is an arm of the Points North Institute, an organization which runs several programs for developing artists in nonfiction filmmaking. Continually on the forward of documentary trends, the festival has done a better job of incorporating VR into its lineup than many comparable festivals that run on a much larger scale.
Some of the shorts simply placed the user in the midst of different milieus. Anote’s Ark VR, Matthieu Rytz’s counterpart to his feature-length film Anote’s Ark, shows selections of life on Kiribati, an island nation threatened with total destruction by the rising tides of climate change. In one sequence, you are in the middle of a song and dance, with drummers to one side of you and singers on the other. In Gina Kim’s Bloodless, the “camera” moves, shepherding the user through the alleyways of a Dongducheon, a makeshift town next to a US Army base in South Korea. Eventually, you “meet” a sex worker in one alley — a stand-in for a real-life woman who was murdered in Dongducheon by an American soldier in 1992. The short goes on to show her living conditions by imitating her movements throughout the last hours of her life, illuminating what it’s like to eke out a living by shaving scraps off an occupying force.
Benoit Felici and Mathias Chelebourg’s The Real Thing toys with the very idea of going to a “real” place in VR. Instead, it takes the user to a large-scale imitation: intricate sections of Chinese cities which are made to resemble parts of European cities like Paris, Venice, and London. There’s even a replica Eiffel Tower in Tianducheng, the sparsely populated “Sky City.” There are multiple dimensions of metafiction at play — real people living in real places which are copies of other real places, shown to you through a technological remove. Gliding over canals which you could easily mistake for the real Venice, you start to rethink what even counts as an authentic experience.
Other shorts involve an interactive element. In Kalina Bertin’s Manic VR, you use controllers to interact with what it’s like to live with bipolar disorder, at one point popping imaginary bubbles that float into view. For Asad Malik’s Terminal 3, visitors step into a replica airport security room and put on, not an Oculus, but a HoloLens, which projects an image of a young woman on the empty chair opposite them. The woman has returned to the US from a trip to visit family in Pakistan, and you take on the role of a Homeland Security interrogator — the short is programmed to respond to questions you ask aloud, and changes depending on which ones you choose to ask from those presented.
Not only does this implicate the user in American mistreatment of people of Middle Eastern descent, but the intimacy of the scene is gradually employed to a more fantastical effect. As it goes on, the hologram of the woman goes from a sketched-out wire frame image to a fully colored, more realistic one. She answers questions not as if she is sitting in an interrogation but on a first date, going into long monologues about her ideas on life. It transforms the cold setting into something deeper and friendly. Of course, perhaps someone who sticks to harsher questions will get a different outcome.
The immersion of VR will only grow greater as the tech improves. The possibilities are invigorating, especially in light of what creators are already able to do with the format. Works like the CIFF Storyforms are blazing a new trail in storytelling and art, and we’d do well to pay attention.