Virtual Reality at the 75th Annual Venice Film Festival

Seven standout selections demonstrating the scope of the filmic art form

On a Venetian island named Lazzaretto Vecchio (aka VR Island) the Venice Film Festival‘s virtual reality division showcases and honors advancements in the cinematic medium, both immersive and linear. For the second annual Venice Virtual Reality program, 30 works were selected from roughly 250—a rising number that reflects the importance of film festivals with regard to VR storytelling. And, as expected from the prestigious event, it’s hard to find a roster as impressive as this. From navigating the cosmos to experiencing an entire life (on the verge of death) through food, the diversity carries profound impact. Fortunately, it also happens to be a celebration of the medium—one that embodies an exciting series of scenarios for guests to participate in.

If cinema is the art of playing with time, VR is the art of playing both with time and space

“We have found through the selection process that there was a very significant rise in storytelling complexity and diversity,” co-curator of La Biennale’s Venice VR Michel Reilhac explains to us about this year’s slate. “New creative approaches to manipulating space within the stories’ experiences are developing. My personal feeling is that if cinema is the art of playing with time, VR is the art of playing both with time and space. And we are just beginning to understand what that means.” He further notes that a lot of pieces this year point toward the various ways space can be twisted and altered while still feeling realistic.
There is a broader stylistic diversity at play, too. “We feel we have managed to represent the range of diverse styles we have been exposed to in our research and viewings,” says program co-curator, Liz Rosenthal. This means everything from CGI to 360 videos (though, no AR this year). Of greater importance, however, this applies to the creators themselves. “In our curation,” she continues, “diversity of representation of different artists in terms of nationality and gender is extremely important to us. Out of the 30 projects in competition, 12 have been directed by women and a significant number of female producers and decision-makers were responsible for the development of the projects we are showcasing.
“Venice VR managed to create a reputation for itself after the first edition last year and this has helped us considerably in attracting major players and significant works,”  notes Reilhac. In fact, this has led to an expansion of their competition and the tangential programming. “We have also beefed up our connections between the Venice VR program on VR Island and our other initiatives such as the Venice Production Bridge initiative—selecting 15 international VR projects seeking their financing here in Venice—and the Biennale College Cinema-VR, our development project now closing its second edition whereby nine new VR projects are developed each year through two residential workshops in Venice.” All of this inspires excitement for fans of VR, but the seven selections below will appeal to anyone curious about its capabilities.
Courtesy of CFC Media Lab

Made This Way: Redefining Masculinity

Our one selection from the linear competition, Made This Way: Refining Masculinity makes its international premiere in Venice. This mixed-media documentary is comprised of both photographs and virtual reality volumetric testimonials. It’s the subject matter, however, that breaks new ground—and powerfully so. Within, co-creators Irem Harnak and Elli Raynai address the impact transgender men have on perceptions and signifiers of traditional masculinity. As gender norms are ever-changing and complex, cinematic experiences like this one grant viewers a closeness most need to understand truly.

Umami

Umami makes its world premiere in Venice VR’s interactive competition, and its means of storytelling channels an unexpected sensory subject matter: taste. This installation and VR experience tells the story of a man sentenced to death, reliving his life through a series of Japanese drinks and dishes. Viewers embody the main character, as he lives through the phenomenon known as “Madeleine de Proust.” And, of course, umami is the delicious taste. Ultimately, however, time ends in the present day and the impact is undeniably potent.

Courtesy of Coco Films / VR Wallworth

Awavena

It is with films like Awavena that the developing medium truly expands consciousness. Here, in a 30-minute world premiere project in the interactive competition, Emmy and AACTA award-winning Australian immersive artist Lynette Wallworth envelops viewers in the story of an elder Amazonian shaman, who broke an ancient taboo to train the tribe’s first woman shaman Hushahu. A revolution unfolds for the Yawanawa people, through the transcendent visions of Hushahu—all of which are made visible to the viewer through virtual reality.

Courtesy of La prairie productions

The Roaming-Wetlands

The Roaming-Wetlands challenges users. The premise of the 10-minute experience requires the participant to aid two children, running for their lives, in a mysterious bayou. There’s a Voodoo Man, a mysterious light and the opportunity for heroism. It’s another world premiere in the interactive division, and one that’s not afraid to let the user take a risk—even in the face of a deadly weapon.

Courtesy of Marie Jourdren

The Horrifically Real Virtuality

A theatrical, multiple-viewer extravaganza, The Horrifically Real Virtuality allows simultaneous action inside a story world that honors Hollywood’s horror movie directors. From Bela Lugosi to Ed Wood, character action takes place in the virtual and real world. It’s nostalgic, fun and surprisingly tactile. Director Marie Jourdren has created a shared experience that can last up to 50 minutes.

Kobold

Horror fans will delight at Kobold, an entry in the competition for interactive virtual reality works. The focus here is fairytale-like cinematic realism, and a user walks through photogrammetry from real locations, all while picking up clues to solve a mystery. Real terror abounds. Composed of both short film and interactive portions, the work takes place 1970s East Germany and centers on the disappearance of a five-year-old boy named Kaspar.

Courtesy of Intel

SPHERES Series

Once again, the SPHERES Series makes for required viewing. With its three components at Venice—Chorus of the Cosmos, Songs of Spacetime and Pale Blue Dot—one actually explores the soundscape of the universe. These pieces are shockingly beautiful, meditative and they guide viewers into an experience that simply could not be shoe-horned into any other type of media.

Venice Virtual Reality will run from 29 August through 9 September.