How the new world of virtual reality storytelling is changing film festivals

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Major international film festivals are welcoming a deluge of virtual reality (VR) artwork accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic

A series of immaculate booths with posters on their elegantly built blackboards greet visitors to Hayy Jameel, an art complex and creative hub in Saudi Arabia’s historic port city of Jeddah. With a few exceptions, Hayy Jameel’s booths correspond to cinema halls. Each person here gets their own small cinema, which is equipped with a headset, headphones and a controller. There are also many options to watch as opposed to just one offered in a traditional movie theater. Welcome to the new world of Virtual Reality (VR) storytelling, which is becoming an integral part of film festivals around the world.

The opening edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, held December 6-15, featured 21 VR artworks from around the world in two separate competitive and non-competitive sections. The VR segment of the festival, titled Red Sea Immersive, represented a radical change that spanned the festival program on 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 appeal to audiences who want to experience art using cutting edge technology.

Pushing boundaries

“It is an art that complements the main program of the festival, but also stands independently as a groundbreaking and limitless selection of works,” says Edouard Waintrop, artistic director of the Red Sea Festival, who previously headed the director’s area. Fortnightly parallel programming in Cannes, official selection via VR-Werke. Among the VR works in competition in Jeddah include Kusunda, an interactive work on the endangered Kusunda language in Nepal, Goliath: Playing with reality, the true story of a man whose parents were diagnosed with schizophrenia, and view, 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 work produced today is backed by international teams with enormous experience and talent. Goliath British actress Tilda Swinton stars while Welsh actor Taron Egerton, who played Elton John, stars rocket Man, the illustrator Herbie Turner is in View. view was created by Irish director Benjamin Cleary, who won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film Stutterers In 2016, an all-women jury consisting 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 determine the winner of the 13 VR works in Jeddah.

“The pandemic has aroused great interest in VR work,” says Red Sea Immersive curator Liz Rosenthal. “The selection in Jeddah really is one of the most exciting presentations of virtual experiences that has enriched the festival so far,” adds Rosenthal, also curator of Venice VR at the Venice International Film Festival. According to a recent study, 70% of all VR users have bought a device in the past 12 months. So far this year a whopping 10.7 million VR headsets have been sold, and by 2025 it should be 70.1 million.

Four years ago, a VR work was part of the official selection of the Cannes Festival for the first time, when the celebrated Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu presented his VR installation Carne y Arena about the plight of the refugees. On a rare move that Bird man and The revenant Director received a special Oscar in 2017 for his VR work. In the same year, Iñárritu showed Carne y Arena in Cannes, one of the first VR films to be shot in India, and was again part of the VR selection of the Toronto Festival with five films a first. The five-minute one Right to pray, directed by Khushboo Ranka and produced by Anand Gandhi, investigated women’s protests against a long tradition of denying them entry to a temple in Trimbakeshwar, Maharashtra.

Artistic sensitivity

At the Sundance Festival in the United States in January this year, 14 VR projects were part of the festival’s New Frontier program, while Venice VR Expanded, a special virtual reality program launched five years ago by the world’s oldest film festival his famous Golden Lion for the best VR story is even being raffled off. End of the night, a VR work from Denmark about a Dane who fled to Sweden by boat to escape the Nazi occupation, won the Golden Lion in Venice in September. End of the night, Part of the Red Sea Immersive selection, was recognized in both Venice and Jeddah for its breathtaking interactive experience.

“The early VR projects were demos driven by technology rather than storytelling. That has changed and today there is an explosion of content. Today’s VR works are not demos, but legitimate works of art, ”says Michael Salmon, the producer of Red Sea Immersive. Today, VR projects are not managed by one person, but by a team of filmmakers, developers, players and animators. “It’s a similar team when you’re making a game, but it takes artistic sensitivity,” adds the London-based Salmon.

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

The virtual reality experience has come a long way since the early VR days when viewers had to squeeze a thick cell phone into a headset to watch. Today’s VR projects are viewed on Oculus Quest 2 headsets from Facebook (Facebook, now Metaverse, bought Oculus in 2016) which provide a friendly experience with no distraction or disorientation. “Today’s VR headsets are stand-alone devices that are not connected to a computer as they used to be,” says Marc Lopato, co-founder of Diversion Cinema, a virtual reality event agency based in Paris. Thanks to breakthrough technologies 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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