SIFF 2018 Edition: Get in the (VR) Zone

SIFF VR Zone at Pacific Place

In 2016, SIFF dedicated a part of its festival to emerging virtual reality work. Held at Seattle Center, the event was a mini-festival-within-the-festival dubbed SIFFX. Last year, it transformed into 360 Storytelling, which was offered by WonderTek labs every weekend of the festival, and a “PlayTank” at the Film Center the last day of fest. This year, the virtual reality experience was rebranded as the SIFF VR Zone and was housed on the ground floor of Pacific Place. On the last day of SIFF 2018, I decided to investigate this emerging medium and what it means (or doesn’t mean) for the future of film in particular and visual media in general.

The VR Zone was open for 90 minutes at a time, followed by 30 minutes where the exhibit was closed. During those 30 minutes, people lined up in the waiting room. Once the exhibit was ready for ticket holders and passholders, a staff member came out and explained what’s about to happen. Basically, the room we were about to go into would be filled with individual stations. Each station would be equipped with a Samsung Gear VR headset. Some exhibits would sport interactive controllers, as well. Swivel chairs would be provided for the features so as to fully experience the 360 degree visuals and sound. The features would involve sitting, while some of the interactive exhibits would involve standing. We were also warned to take breaks, as people prone to motion-sickness might be affected by the VR (I was warned in advance about one called Uplift VR: Maiden Flight, which takes place in a hot air balloon, but I didn’t have time to try it). Each exhibit would have the name of the exhibit and its run time written near the exhibit, usually on the wall.

With that, the blacks curtains were opened and we were let loose on a long, black-lined room that narrowed near the back (and shifted a bit to the right). Near the walls rested several swivel chairs with headsets and headphones (in other exhibits, the headsets and headphones were combined). Toward the middle of the space was a balloon basket (for Maiden Flight). Past it were more interactive exhibits, then a hallway perpendicular to the rest of the room. If you took a right, the hallway led past two exhibits into Where Thoughts Go. To the left were two more exhibits on the way to the restrooms.

The Zone included different VR experiences. Interactive VR involved more of the viewer, 360 Out of Africa and 360 Out of Space are what they sound like in their respective focuses, while 360 Experimental jettisoned narrative for different uses of the medium. Youth 360 were projects created by youth, while 360 Narrative, 360 Documentary, and 360 Art & Music are self-explanatory. In all, there were 28 exhibits of varying length, with most exhibits lasting under 15 minutes in length.

Since I had limited time, I went on my coworkers’ recommendations, with one exception. My first VR experience was Rone, an 8-9 minute documentary about the street artist by Lester Francois. This man paints huge portraits of women in buildings and other spaces designated for destruction. I used the swivel chair to good effect on this one.

The next exhibit was not recommended to me, nor would I recommend it to others. That was the experimental The Cabiri: Anubis by Bogdan Darev and Fred Beahm. Taking the shape of a play and coming after the true 360 world of Rone, this 180 staged work didn’t utilize all that VR could offer. Plus, it was boring in its telling of a man in ancient Egypt traveling to the Underworld to await judgement. Much of that had to do with the choreography, which wasn’t that impressive. Titles over the visuals were the only dialog included; music and gestures told the rest.

Then came the calming and wonderful Where Thoughts Go by Lucas Rizzotto, the first of two interactive exhibits I was able to experience. The exhibit, complete with a gauzy entrance and cushions to sit on, utilized controllers that allowed me to manipulate tiny spheres of light. In each “level”, you’d be asked a personal question, usually having to do with love, loss, or memories. You could manipulate the spheres to hear how other people answered, but the only way to move to the next question was to record an answer, then send your “answer sphere” to join the other spheres. It says something when an employee had to come in and tell me to wrap it up (due to people waiting for the exhibit outside), but I answered at least three of the questions and heard multiple answers to them. If it’s back next year, I may just spend all my time there.

The final exhibit (and final interactive exhibit) I experienced, I had to wait for. Called Queerskins: A Love Story (by Illya Szilac and Cyril Tsiboulski), the exhibit space was filled with mementos and testimonials of gay people who’d been rejected by their parents. The exhibit also had controllers that allowed me to manipulate items in a box as I sat in the back seat of a car. In the front were parents of a son who has died of AIDS. The box contained items that belonged to their son. The items changed every so often, depending on what was happening in the story at the time. While the narrative was powerful, I wondered if the VR Experience was necessary. Sure, you see the son as a person through interacting with the items in the back seat, but you aren’t holding physical items, which would create more of an impact. Also, the story is meant to make a point (which it does), but a short film could delve deeper into the subject with more complexity.

Overall, I’m glad I went to the exhibit. Just like 3D, however, the forced perspective gave me a headache, even after just one exhibit. Imagine if the exhibits were feature-length! If anyone figures out how to make the holodeck a reality, I’m there, but for now, virtual reality will remain a novelty, or one confined to the shortest of run-times.

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SIFF 2018 Edition: Capsule Reviews, Week Three

Here are all the capsule reviews for week three in alphabetical order, including the entire final weekend of SIFF. Release dates are included where applicable. Again, my rating system:

1=Awful. Major flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. No reason to see this film unless you have to, and then I still wouldn’t.

2=Okay to average. Some major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Not good enough to recommend.

3=Above average to good. A few major/minor flaws in plot/characters/writing/filmmaking. Films in this category either garner a slight recommendation from me or almost do.

4=Very good to great. Might have a few minor flaws in it. All films in this category are recommended viewing.

5=Excellent to outstanding. Very few flaws, if any. The best of the best.

  1. Found Footage Festival: Cherished Gems: A collection of unintentionally hilarious, bizarre, or downright gross clips from the heyday of VHS. With explanations between curated clips and some live commentary. I laughed so hard my sides hurt afterwards. 4 (Presented by Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher)
  2. My Name Is Myeisha: Sandwiched between two movie bookends is an adaptation of the play Dreamscape, which uses hip-hop and spoken word to juxtapose the events leading to Myeisha’s (Rhaechyl Walker) death at the hands of the police (and the subsequent coroner’s report) and brief glances at her life and world. It humanizes her, to be sure, but what works in the theater doesn’t always work onscreen (the transition from movie to adaptation is pretty goofy), and while this one gets better as it goes, the event itself creates more of an impact and a sense of how tragic and unnecessary her death was than the means used to flesh out her story. Still, films reach more people than plays do, and that’s enough of a reason to be glad it was made. Plus, the home movie footage and ending are powerful stuff. (d: Gus Krieger)
  3. Naila and the Uprising: An important, informative, and necessary documentary about the first (and purest) intifada and the women who were a huge part of it, but were pushed out of their positions of power once the PLO returned to power.(d: Julia Bacha)
  4. The Silk and the Flame: A gorgeous-looking black and white documentary about a young gay man (Yao) from a small town in China trying to hold up against pressured from the community to follow familial tradition and marry. (d: Jordan Schiele) US Premiere Release date TBA.
  5. The Taste of Betel Nut: This movie begins at the end, then loops back in time to when polyamorous couple Li Qi and Ren Yu (Shen Shi Yu and Bingrui Zhao, respectively) allow a young woman, Bai Ling (Yue Yue) into their lives for a summer. A few questionable decisions (which might be answered by a second viewing) can’t mar the fact that this is one of the stronger films I saw at SIFF, though I would’ve given it higher marks if Bai Lung were fleshed out more as a person, and less as a plot device. 4 (d: Hu Jia) North American Premiere
  6. VR Zone: With 28 short subjects to cover in 90 minutes on the last (and busiest) day of the SIFF VR Zone, I didn’t have time to view all the recommended titles by friends and coworkers, let alone all 28. I ended up experiencing four of them: one documentary, one experimental, and two interactive. All used Samsung Gear VR headsets (with adjustable focus) and headphones (either attached to the headset or separate), a couple used controllers.
    1. Rone: A documentary about the street artist of the same name, who draws large portraits of women’s faces in abandoned buildings and other forgotten areas. He explains that he chose women’s faces because most of the street art he saw was masculine, and he wanted to counteract it. By far the best use of VR; everywhere you looked, there was something to see. The swivel chair helped. (Lester Francois)
    2. The Cabiri: Anubis: While waiting to see a recommended exhibit, I decided to try this one, which follows an ancient Egyptian man’s journey to the underworld, where he is judged by a dance troop (I mean, they’re playing roles, but it’s a dance troop). Oh, and acrobats. This film could’ve been effectively done on a front and rear projection screen, or on stage. Most of the time, it didn’t incorporate the immersive experience that the other exhibits did, as you sit on a bench and merely look in front or behind you. Also, with no dialog and occasional sentences grafted on the screen that seemed culled from abandoned movie trailer slogans, it failed to keep my interest. (Bogdan Darev & Fred Beahm)
    3. Where Thoughts Go: Boasting the longest run-time of all the exhibits, I only got partway through, due to demand. Like the other interactive exhibits, instead of a chair or a bench, you sat in a room which was decked out as part of the exhibit, this one with cushions, and manipulated two controllers to listen to previous people’s answers to deeply personal questions. To continue to the next question, you had to record your own answer, and then set the recording free. To give you an example, the first question was: Why did you fall in love for the first time? As this is an ongoing project, I hope to visit it next year (on a less busy day) and listen to (and record) more responses. Simple, yet rewarding. (Lucas Rizzotto)
    4. Queerskins: A Love Story: Another recommended exhibit, which also had its space built up, complete with a table, photos on the walls, and a bench to sit on as a stand-in for a car seat. In this exhibit, you sit in the back of a car as a devout Christian couple discusses their gay son on the way to visit his grave. As they talk, objects appear in a box next to you, which you can pick up and look at. While the views from the car were nice, the objects didn’t add anything to the emotional impact of the short, which would’ve been just as powerful as a feature film, rather than an interactive VR Exhibit. Still, it is powerful. (Illya Szilac & Cyril Tsiboulski)