Nobody wants to be the guy who went on record in 1994 saying that the Internet was a passing fad. Admittedly, walking into this year’s Storyscapes exhibition at Tribeca Film Festival, which promised “groundbreaking approaches in storytelling and technology,” I was kind of that guy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that experiencing “immersive stories” has moved beyond clicking on hyperlinks into more active, even full-body experiences. I also deeply appreciate that the Tribeca team continues to expose audiences to new narrative forms in a more robust way each year since Storyscapes began in 2013. Nonetheless, amidst the rapid emergence of virtual reality and 360-degree cinema, I entered this year’s display with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Will virtual reality finally take off after decades of experimentation? Is there a real market for it? And does this emerging technology have a significant place in documentary film? Can these media serve doc filmmakers and audiences in meaningful ways?
The creators at this year’s Storyscapes seem to think so. Right now, it’s more about potential and experimentation, with some of the projects on display being in the research or prototype phase.
The first exhibit I experienced, The Machine To Be Another, was quite literally a research project created by BeAnotherLab, an interdisciplinary collective that describe themselves as “creative researchers.” I entered the project with a fellow participant in Storyscapes — a man — and we were each instructed to put on the Oculus Rift headsets. Next thing I knew, I looked down at my hands, and saw his. I moved my foot, and saw his. Eventually, I met myself across the room and shook hands. The machine allowed me to temporarily swap genders and embody another person, and it was fascinating.
Christian Cherene from BeAnotherLab explains that one benefit of using this technology is the use of liminal space. “You are not quite you and not quite them,” Cherene says. “It can be transformative in the shifting of relationships between people. People who experience this feel a deep familiarity with the other.”
Another experience that can be had in The Machine To Be Another is more story-based, wherein a live performer tells a true story from their life, while you wear the VR headset and embody that person, touching physical artifacts from their story in a real-time documentary. However, including a narrative element was more of a byproduct of the collective’s research. According to Cherene, their ultimate mission is to throw the technology away and build on that interpersonal trust in the real world.
Unlike The Machine To Be Another, story is at the heart of Karim Ben Khelifa‘s project, The Enemy. This project is a very early proof-of-concept for an ambitious virtual reality and artificial intelligence documentary exploring entrenched global conflicts. In its current iteration, I also donned a VR headset, and was invited into a black box space where I met life-sized, 3-D Israeli and Palestinian soldiers. They each answered a series of Khelifa’s thoughtful questions, the answers proving that they are more similar than you, or they, might guess.
Right now, the experience felt to me like an elaborately produced interview with Star-Trek-like holograms. I asked Khelifa, who has a celebrated photojournalism career behind him, why he would bother with such an intensive and expensive project rather than just publishing photos and recorded interviews. He said that he had published a very similar piece in Foreign Policy Magazine, but he didn’t think it could reach a broad audience in as meaningful a way.
Khelifa passionately advocated for this medium, stating, “It’s more powerful than print or TV or the web. Can we bring people to meet outside the context of a conflict? Would a magazine still connect with them? I carry those questions with me as a journalist. I want to have an impact as a journalist. When people in war zones welcome me with a camera in their face, they of course want a witness. But they also believe that the story will have an impact and could change their situation.”
Khelifa believes that this impact can be created through augmented reality experiences, and is working with several high-profile partners such as MIT’s Open Documentary Lab to make The Enemy into a multi-user project where visitors can encounter and interact with opposing members of several of the world’s most seemingly intractable conflicts at once. And given the emotional punch that some have experienced in the Storyscapes prototype alone, he may be right. “We had an Israeli woman here yesterday,” he explained, “and she walked out with tears in her eyes. She said, ‘I’ve never been that close to my enemy.'”
I think the most successful project at this year’s Storyscapes is Door Into The Dark, which manages to create an impactful hybrid of technology, storytelling and real, visceral experiences. In my view, this project most lived up to the “immersive” title, as I put on a different kind of headset — a more DIY construction helmet with blinders on front, massive headphones and an iPhone with a custom-designed geo-locative app strapped to the top.
After a series of instructions and prompts designed to make me feel safe and comfortable, I embarked on a storytelling experience, literally feeling my way around a dark space using all of my available senses, and listening to three highly produced audio documentaries. As I heard about the characters’ lives, I had the opportunity to explore similar sensations, actually climbing a rough jagged peak while listening to a mountain climber discuss staring into the void, for example. Following the project all the way through the almost hour-long experience, I felt a wide range of emotions, from sympathy to outright fear during the narrative’s dramatic climax.
May Abdalla, of the project’s producing duo Anagram, explains some of the philosophy behind the project: “We knew we wanted an active storytelling experience, and to reconnect the body with stories. There’s even a bodily ritual when entering the cinema: getting popcorn, sitting in a comfy chair in the dark. How could we push that?” Abdalla and her partner Amy Rose have backgrounds in documentary film, and Door Into The Dark makes a strong case for the use experiential tech in docs. Abdalla argues “documentary stories aren’t fundamentally different from other stories, and somehow knowing that it’s a real person behind the story matters. It takes away some of the layers of artifice that might make an audience member feel disconnected from other kinds of immersive projects.” (Look for a full interview with Abdalla and Rose on this blog in the coming days.)
Despite the potential, and the thrill I felt experiencing some of these projects, there are still many drawbacks. Most of the technology is clunky, uncomfortable, expensive and not really scalable yet. And when it comes down to it, I wonder if a future where everyone is traveling around in virtual space puts interaction and progress in the physical world at risk. Right now I have more questions than answers, but after all, isn’t asking questions what documentary filmmakers do best?
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