On Saturday, September 7th, was the last day and an award ceremony for the Venice Film Festival, the oldest film festival that takes place every year as part of the Venice Biennale. And for the third year in a row, virtual reality is officially part of the competition. I’m sure it came as a surprise for many that a Golden Lion in Best VR Immersive Story category for linear content was awarded to an independently-produced 11-minute 360VR documentary “Daughters of Chibok” — despite an ongoing argument that 360 is not really VR, despite significantly reduced investment into 360 space from newsrooms and overall dismissing narrative towards linear 3DOF content.
This short VR film was produced independently by Joel Kachi Benson and his team from Nigeria. Technically it’s a very simple piece, nothing as fancy as Traveling While Black from Felix&Paul that was also shown at the Biennale as part of the Best of VR/Out of Competition section. It’s just a simple 360mono video shot with Omni GoPro camera. Moreover, it didn’t have any external production budget, Joel and his team covered the expenses and produced it at their own cost. So how did it happen?
I guess the story is the key, as always. “Daughters of Chibok” were filmed in Chibok, Nigeria where 276 girls were kidnapped by terrorists from Boko Haram 5 years ago — and 112 are still missing. At first, this story was dominating international news agenda, but as the news cycle drifted away, families living in Chibok — who are still waiting for their daughters to come back not knowing if they’re dead or alive — found themselves forgotten. The director and the crew are from Nigeria, and as Joel shared during his Q&A held at the VR island days before the award ceremony, for them it is a very personal story. They shot this documentary at their own expense because they wanted to show how the Chibok community is deeply affected by what happened five years ago. Thirty-three family members died in the last five years as a consequence of this tragedy. In “Daughters of Chibok,” the story is told through the eyes of women of Chibok. The main hero is Yana Galang, whose daughter was kidnapped and is still missing.
Life continues in Chibok, and through her eyes, we see daily hardships of women who have to work very hard every day to feed their children. Yana has eight kids, and though her heart is full of grief, every day she works really hard to provide for other seven children so they can go to the same school where her daughter was kidnapped. VR film is not taking us back to the tragedy that happened five years ago, it is taking us to modern-day Chibok to show how pain and grief never left the community.
“Daughters of Chibok” were competing in one of two Venice VR nominations — Linear VR. And to say that competition was intense is an understatement. Out of 12 VR experiences in this category, 7 were live-action 360 pieces of very different production quality, from CG-heavy and artistic “Ex Anima Experience” from Atlas V and ARTE to 30-minute VR film “Only The Mountain Remains” from HTC Originals. Other 5 pieces were animation, including such overall VR hits and favorites as Gloomy Eyes and Battlescar.
I can see some people questioning a low-budget mono-360 documentary winning Golden Lion and beating such amazingly done and super high-production-value 6DOF animation pieces like Battlescar and Gloomy Eyes that are years in the making. Maybe some would say that documentary content that covers such an important human story should not be competing in one category with fiction narrative genre and animation, and probably I would agree. But I guess that the Festival jury just made a statement that it’s not the format that matters, it’s not an argument about Mono VS Stereo, 3DOF VS 6DOF and what VR is, it’s about a well-told story that touches hearts of viewers through immersive technology, and “Daughters of Chibok” definitely achieved that.