Triggering Empathy with Virtual Reality MoviesNergal Scott
Virtual reality (VR) in films is a pretty nascent phenomenon, but it’s already begun fascinating directors, writers and audiences. Earlier this year in May, the Cannes International Film Festival screened VR short films and featured presentations on the technology for the first time. In fact, throughout this year, VR movies — and panels and presentations on them — have been a part of several renowned international film festivals. VR films were also part of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, which concluded last month, where several VR films (including the Making of Baahubali) were screened. The tenth edition of Film Bazaar, South Asia’s biggest film market, had a section dedicated to VR, too, allowing attendees to experience and understand the medium: they could watch more than a dozen films at a special VR lounge at the venue and also attend several discussions and presentations about the films. We live in a time and age fixated on and inundated with technology, so much so that anything remotely new is referred to as ‘path breaking’, ‘disruptive’ or ‘the next big thing’. These descriptors have been applied to VR as well. But given that this technology is so new and constantly changing — feature length VR films (whether fictional or documentary) haven’t quite become commonplace yet — it’ll be immature to say anything definitive about it right now. However, the new technology has the potential to change the way we consume moving pictures, because it seems to be asking us some very fundamental, at times even radical, questions about the medium of cinema itself.
Cinema has been around for long enough for us to realise how directors helm films, supervising and collaborating with actors, writers and sundry film technicians. Directors are powerful; they birth films, shape their outcomes, direct audiences. But VR is different, for it takes away some of that control from them, reduces their power to hold an audience’s attention. Unlike a conventional movie, a VR film doesn’t have the concept of a frame or a point of view. Here, the directors cannot entirely control what the audience will see or engage with. Imagine standing in the middle of a big playground and turning your head to slowly scan the field — a bunch of kids could be playing cricket in one corner, football in volleyball in yet another. Watching a VR film is a little like that — witnessing a constant collision and collusion between stories. Every scene, shot by multiple cameras and stitched together to offer a 360-degree view, opens up in multiple directions, to multiple stories, multiple interpretations. VR films are not just immersive; they are the closest approximation of real life — where the story is always evolving, there’s always something to find and somewhere to look. But the most important questions are these: Where are you willing to look? What stories are you — the audience — willing to make? Cinema hasn’t been unfamiliar to changes: from silent films to talkies to 3-D, technological changes have always been crucial to how we engage with the medium. For instance, at one point in Clouds Over Sidra, we see a bakery in the refugee camp. A few men are chatting while they work, but it’s only when you turn your head to the right, that you see a little boy in the bakery, standing silently, and kneading dough. Had I not bothered to turn, I’d have missed watching that part of reality tucked away in a corner.
If, till now, films were man with a movie camera, then VR films are man being a movie camera, placing the audiences at the centre of action. We’ve to give up thinking in terms of frames. With VR, we’re not thinking in terms of flat rectangles but spheres, all around us. Right now, India is at a stage where European and American markets were, 12 to 18 months ago, which doesn’t sound far-fetched. Indian filmmakers haven’t produced a lot of VR films, though some efforts have already begun. In September 2016, Khushboo Ranka’s seven-minute VR documentary, Right to Pray, premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Right to Pray chronicled the efforts of a group of women to enter the inner premises of the Trimbakeshwar temple in Nashik, despite the patriarchal restrictions against women’s entry. The documentary was produced by the Memesys Culture Lab (co-founded in July 2015 by the filmmaker Anand Gandhi), which now plans to produce VR films. The Memesys Culture Lab also produced another VR documentary, Cost of Coal, centred on the coal mines of Korba in Chhatisgarh, which have polluted the environment of the region and jeopardised its inhabitants’ lives. Directed by Faiza Khan, the maker of the acclaimed documentary Supermen of Malegaon, Cost of Coal was acquired by UN’s virtual reality app, UNVR. There are other VR projects taking shape in India too, for instance, since September 2016, an eight-part series of short VR films, called The Unnamed Guide (revolving around eight tourist guides talking about the stories and mythologies based on eight Indian cities), by independent filmmaker Pranav Ashar, has been screened in different parts of Mumbai, including the Bombay Art Society in Bandra, the first VR centre in the country.
Back in India, Baahubali director S. S. Rajamouli, who was “very excited about this new storytelling medium”, partnered with AMD India, a semiconductor company, to launch two VR experiences at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival: one gave the audiences access to the set of Baahubali, and the other enabled them to interact with the film’s world. VR has also found another champion, in A.R. Rahman, who launched the VR version of his celebrated song ‘Vande Mataram’ at Film Bazaar. While speaking to the documentary filmmaker Nasreen Munni Kabir, Rahman said his VR experience was “life changing”. “I used to watch four films a day at the age of 13 on VCR. But VR did something to me emotionally that nothing else did,” he said. “It changed the way I felt about characters.” Towards the end of the conversation, Kabir told Rahman, “I was talking to Imtiaz Ali the other day, who said social media has made people lonelier. So would the VR experience — which is virtual not real — do the same?” Rahman said, smiling, “I think it’ll be very good for lonely people.”