Tribeca Film Festival 2016: The Virtual Arcade

Sure, Tribeca's short films were mind expanding and its stack of features were narratively ambitious. But its virtual reality component managed to do both.

Although I love both movies and computer games, I’ve never been particularly interested in the idea of virtual reality. It always seemed just slightly unnecessary to me. Yet one of the main components of the Tribeca Film Festival this year was the debut of the Virtual Arcade, which was dedicated to the technology of virtual reality and offered up myriad selections of immersive filmmaking.

Cynical as I may have been, it would have been foolish to not check it out, and I headed up to the fifth floor of the Festival Hub, fully expecting my prejudices about the technology to be validated. And at first, I thought they would be—what greeted me as I entered the Arcade was a room of headset-strapped people sitting on chairs and looking around the room while others (lots of others) lined up for that very same privilege. It felt like something out of The Matrix, and to some extent it was. Here were a bunch of people, in real life, experiencing a world that only they could see, while others, like me, were watching the reality of their unreality as it unfolded: their heads and attached devices moving up and down and left and right, thoroughly oblivious to what it looked like from the outside.

But then, the whole point of the virtual reality experiences on offer was to experience them from the inside, to be fully immersed in a world you otherwise couldn’t experience. That much became abundantly clear the first time I entered the matrix to watch Hard World for Small Things, a short narrative directed by Janicza Bravo that was set in LA. The room around me disappeared as the viewer and headphones were placed on my eyes and ears, and I was riding in the back seat of a convertible. And it felt incredibly real. I looked up and there was sky above me. I looked left and right and saw the world pass by as the car drove forward. The only thing that threw me off was, when I looked down, my feet were nowhere to be seen.

That I could only watch and not interact in any way only amplified the point the film was trying to make. It left me feeling angry and powerless and helpless in a way that just watching it on a screen wouldn’t have done.

Despite that jarring sense of disembodiment, my self-awareness of it, and the fact that I could hear the occasional voice in the real-life room that existed outside of my new surroundings, I adapted to it much more quickly than I thought I would. Although I knew I wasn’t, I really wanted to be there in that car. Even if it was foolish, I wanted to talk to and interact with the people who were there with me. All I could do, though, was be a passive observer and watch as the narrative unfolded in front of my eyes and around me. Without giving too much away, what happened turned an innocuous journey into a powerful and moving commentary on race and violence in America today. That I could only watch and not interact in any way only amplified the point the film was trying to make. Perhaps that was an unintentional by-product of the VR interface, but it left me feeling angry and powerless and helpless in a way that just watching it on a screen wouldn’t have done, heightening the impact of what I’d just experienced. And “experienced” is the right word; when I took off the headset and headphones, it took me a few seconds to adjust to where I was, because—truly—I had forgotten.

A still from Jessica Kantor's VR film "Ashes." Image courtesy Tribeca Film Festival.

A still from Jessica Kantor’s VR film Ashes. Image courtesy Tribeca Film Festival.

That was, without doubt, the most successfully immersive VR encounter, but two others spring to mind. The first was Jessica Kantor’s Ashes, an art performance piece set on a beach that used dance and an incredibly unsettling score to conjure up an overpowering sense of loss and isolation. Unlike Hard World for Small Things, which followed a linear narrative, this film was interpretive and experimental, and it made use of the entire 360-degree panorama that VR enables, so that the “action” was in constant motion all around me. What that meant is that the film could be experienced multiple times in wholly different ways, depending on where I looked and when. Of course, it’s a false sense of freedom—the film didn’t change, just my perception of it, but it was nevertheless an interesting demonstration of the capabilities and potential of interactive experiences.

The second was Tyson Sadler’s The Artist of Skid Row, which placed me directly on the streets of the area where most of LA’s disenfranchised and homeless reside. My guide was Ramiro Puentes, an artist who used to call those streets home. The experience wasn’t quite as “real” as the other two; because of the camerawork and composition, I never got the sense I was actually on the streets, but that I was floating past them, jumping, somewhat impossibly, from avenue to avenue, location to location. While it lacked in fluidity and realness, though, it certainly brought me into the center of everything, and I felt closer, physically, to the area and to Puentes than I otherwise would have.

From my experience, that’s the crucial point of what virtual reality can do: increase the connection between you and whatever it is you’re “watching,” increasing your visceral, physical, and emotional experience. I’d expected something akin to the ineffective and unimpressive 3D movies that have become fashionable again in recent years, but I got so much more than that. There still remain questions of practicality and cost—both remain prohibitive currently—but the value of what virtual reality is already doing is, in direct contrast to my expectations, already plain to see. And as I left the Virtual Arcade to step outside once again onto the streets of New York, the worlds I’d just experienced remained with me, taunting me, and making me wonder and imagine what the future will hold even just a few years down the line. FL

2016 Tribeca Film Festival coverage: The Features | The Shorts

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