Frustration. That’s the primary emotion I get from the VR experience. And I’m not being coy when I say that this is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s the understandable result of being exposed to an art form that has hardly been hatched.
This was on my mind this past weekend when I went to the Immersive showcase (April 21 – 29) taking place at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The main reason I am frustrated is because I want so much from VR — I want to see the new technology raise the documentary genre to a new and transcendent level in their capacity, as we like to say, “empathy machines.”
But I don’t know that any of us — please let me know otherwise — have ever experienced a completely, satisfying VR production. The closest I’ve come was at last year’s 6×9 at Tribeca. It put you in a solitary confinement jail cell and was the ideal subject for the form; stuck in a completely foreign, confined space. It was totally on point, well produced, written and executed.
This year, I started with Blackout, a cruel joke of a VR experience for a New Yorker because it puts you right back where you don’t want to be: on a subway car. You stand amongst virtual straphangers and what’s cool is that you hear their thoughts and get inside their heads, which is something every New Yorker could appreciate. But, again, I was frustrated: the thoughts you hear are initially stream-of-consciousness, but then they become more biographical monologues. The Brooklyn-based media collective Scatter nobly emphasizes themes of cross-cultural understanding in the divisive-Trump era but, for me, it became a series of conventional first-person narratives. I’d have much more appreciated the experience of simulating entering other people’s thinking processes while they’re on a train.
It seems petty to critique something that the industrious group has been working on for two and a half years. But that’s one of the (mutually?) frustrating elements of VR; as a participant, I feel like I should have a say in the experience. Sure, sometimes I go into a movie thinking that I wish it could have been different, but not often. With VR, this new, interactive medium, there’s a suggestion of participant control.
Props to Blackout director Alexander Porter, who said that my quibbling was “edifying.” I’m not sure the rest of his team felt the same way.
There were other frustrations. Technical difficulties cut short my experience of Treehugger, a simulation of a tree undergoing photosynthesis. And then there was the annoyance of waiting on another line, getting bumped by someone special, and just the ridiculousness of waiting for ten minutes for an 8-minute experience. That’s not a very good return rate.
Even with a deeply emotional and near-perfect experience like Step to the Line, about a fantastic anti-recidivism program, Defy Ventures, the experience feels off. I mean, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this piece. You just want to love and hug and cry with the prisoners and program mentors depicted, but the problem is that the experience is too short; when it was over, I felt bereft, hungry for more.
How immersed and empathetic can you be in an eight minute experience that involves wearing uncomfortable goggles and being surrounded by other film festival goers who are experiencing different experiences all around you? It’s unsettling.
It’s no surprise that I saw several established feature documentary filmmakers, such as Amir Bar-Lev and Maxim Pozdorovkin sampling the Immersive projects. I was wondering if filmmaker Gary Hustwit’s new Scenic VR studio, composed of top-notch documentary directors were going to presenting a piece, but Tribeca’s new media maven Ingrid Kopp tells me that their recent project, about Buckminster Fuller, which premiered at True/False, wasn’t ready for the Tribeca slate.
I mentioned Hustwit to a VR producer, who, like Hustwit, is based in Brooklyn, but she had never heard of him or Scenic, an indicator that the world of documentary and this new tech phenomenon is truly uncharted ground, a Wild West of artists, technologists, and filmmakers who are playing in the same sandbox for the first time.
One of the few people who gets the big picture in VR is David Oppenheim, a producer at Canada’s National Film Board, who was on hand for the NFB- supported Draw Me Close, a VR experience that will stick with me for a long time. There’s a spoiler here so you shouldn’t read further if you plan on going to Draw Me Close this week. I’ll start by saying this is a truly multidisciplinary work: It’s digital technology meets theater and to a lesser extent, documentary. You enter a VR memory of playwright Jordan Tannahill as he recalls his early life in the wake of his mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis. It starts pretty cool but then things get immediately, intensely real even as they get surreal when you find yourself interacting with a real person as if you are the young Jordan while an actor plays the part of his mother. Whoa!
“It’s creative nonfiction,” Oppenheim says: I’ll say: times ten. But it’s stretching what I’d call documentary. Although it taps nonfiction for its content, it’s really something wholly new.
I spoke with Kopp briefly while the VR magic swirled around us. I’ve mentioned here the best works I experienced but there were a few others that I couldn’t help suggest might be gimmicky. She corrected me. “I wouldn’t say that,” she says. “It’s more that it’s a work-in-progress.”