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These VR Films Let Viewers Talk to Refugees and Holocaust Survivors

Entries at this year's Sheffield Doc Fest brought all-too-real stories to virtual life.

Experiencing the brand-new "Alternate Realities" programme at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest—the UK's largest documentary film festival—was dizzying and diverse. Following on from Sundance and Cannes, which have recently made their first serious forays into virtual reality, Doc/Fest curators put 12 major VR and other interactive projects into their programme this year.

Combining gaming technology, documentary footage, and artificial intelligence, the virtual reality arcade at Doc/Fest spanned a vast range of topics, from the refugee crisis to an "immersive spacewalk experience." Festival goers could put on a set of VR goggles and emerge in 1916 Dublin during the Easter Rising, or modern-day Israel to learn different viewpoints of the Gaza conflict.

One of the finest interactive exhibits was New Dimensions in Testimony, an interactive experience held in a dark room, where the viewer is faced with an oblong screen. On it appears the scanned image of Pinchas Gutter, a Holocaust survivor, equipped with natural language technology to answers questions in an authentic and spontaneous way. Visitors had a one-on-one opportunity to ask whatever they liked, from the practical ("What did your family do before the war?") to the philosophical ("Did you ever feel you wanted revenge?").

Gutter, who recorded hours of interviews with the USC Shoah Foundation, maintains eye contact and gives a real sense of naturalism, offering the spectator a personal connection with his life. This sophisticated tech supports a stripped-back visual approach, highlighting the humanity of the subject and offering the intimacy of a genuine conversation.

It does have the potential to appear morally wrong-footed: Privileged film festival attendees queue up to get a 20-minute taste of oppression and misery—and then move on with their day

The current migrant crisis was another serious event explored by several of the VR projects. Aardman Animations (of Wallace & Gromit fame) made their first venture into VR with We Wait, a vividly-depicted journey of a group of migrants in Turkey waiting to be smuggled by boat into Greece. Placing the viewer in the middle of the action as they are constantly returned to Turkish shores by the authorities, We Wait traced the Sisyphean nature of the migrant experience.

Another film, Two Billion Miles, offered a series of choices to be made for a Syrian refugee, intercutting each decision with real news footage of the likely outcome. It was almost like an utterly miserable "choose your own adventure" game. It's well-intentioned, but does have the potential to appear morally wrong-footed: Privileged film festival attendees queue up to get a 20-minute taste of oppression and misery—and then move on with their day.

The filmmaking community, particularly documentarians with an eye toward the socially conscious, clearly appreciate the insight VR may offer. Though still in flux, it's clear that this technology is finding its place in documentary filmmaking. The aims and purposes of these nonfiction films—to educate, enlighten, and elicit empathy—were aided by the use of interactive or immersive technology, to varying effects. As we increasingly realise that VR has more to offer than throwaway entertainment, the more accepting we may become of it as a serious tool for social change.