Virtual Reality Roundup — Interactive Films At the 2018 New Orleans Film Festival, Reviewed

Miniflix staff and guest writer Caleb Adams review the latest in VR on the film festival circuit

There were many great virtual reality, interactive and immersive films offered at this year’s New Orleans Film Festival. We cover the films we got to see and experience, and whether you should seek them out on your Occulus or Vive.

Meeting a Monster — directed by Gabriela Arp

People experiencing the VR short film “Meeting A Monster” (http://www.gabriela-arp.com/forward/)

Where does hate come from and how does it grow?

Director Gabriella Arp has elected to face this question head on with the VR short Meeting a Monster. The VR experience uses the story of Angela King, a young girl who was recruited into the white power movement, to examine both how hatred is born and how one can escape from hatred. The experience starts you out in an isolated small town environment where you witness how an abusive household formed a sense of despair in the young girl. Eventually Angela discovers violence as a form of control which draws the attention of other white nationalist youth. Through the white nationalist movement, Angela is given a sense of purpose and community lacking from her normal life.

With no one as a voice of wisdom in her life, she fully commits to white nationalism culminating in being arrested after attacking a Jewish video-store clerk. The experience goes on to chronicle her time in prison as the catalyst for leading her out of her life of hatred and the white power movement. Meeting a Monster makes us experience the way in which hatred is cultivated in a way that no regular short-film experience could.

It’s not enough to be shown the isolation; it has to be experienced. With a final shot of a group of ex-white nationalists burning their symbols of hate around a fire, the short manages to end on a more hopeful note: maybe if we are able to understand where monsters come from and how they are made, we can better foster a culture that can fight hatred with truth.

Pacific Gateway: Angel Island — directed by Felicia Lowe

still from the 360° virtual reality video “Pacific Gateway” (http://www.lowedownproductions.com/)

Directed by long-time documentary filmmaker Felicia Lowe, Pacific Gateway ends with a juxtaposition of two powerful images. The first is the outside of the Angel Island Immigration Station as it would have looked at the time Chinese immigrants were being detained and interrogated there. A cloudy, murky horizon looks over a deserted courtyard, over-run with plants and shoddy-looking. The beach beside it feels ominous, symbolizing a never-ending gulf between freedom and exile. The second, and final, image is in the same exact spot, only this time the sun is shining and not a single cloud is in the sky. It’s present day Angel Island, now looking pristine as ever. An historical landmark sign stands before the end of the dock. And the beach this time feels idyllic.

This juxtaposition reflects the larger movie, where past and present collide to remind us that any place can feel like a prison (and that, in U.S. history, many places have been made to feel like prisons…or be actual prisons). While the virtual reality footage within the immigration station itself felt immersive enough to stand on its own, Lowe added a dimension as inspired and heartfelt as the poems found scrawled on the prison walls. Animated figures occasionally foreground the scene, portraying the spirits of those detained, whose poems, thoughts and feelings still linger there. The decision is both a visual delight and a reflection of the film’s main themes.

At other times, Lowe directs the viewer’s attention to footage from her previous documentaries to round out the context of the lives and generations affected by the events of the film. By making us feel that we are truly in Angel Island, Lowe and the creative team behind Pacific Getaway give us a unique inside look at a moment in American history we truly need to remember.

Grandma’s New Year — directed by Matthew Hashiguchi

still from the virtual reality short “Grandma’s New Year”

The VR short, Grandma’s New Year, directed by Matthew Hashiguchi, follows Eva Hashiguchi, a Japanese American grandmother. She moved to Ohio after being released from an internment camp and fully committed to a more Americanized way of life. Every year she prepares a traditional Japanese meal for the Oshogatsu tradition or Japanese New Year’s.

For Hashiguchi, the tradition serves not only as a connection to her heritage but also as away to bring together her family. This added dimension is able to give you a sense of belonging and intimacy that is more difficult to capture on a single screen. The documentary has a quick running time of barely three minutes; but it’s all the time needed to capture a very special slice of life.

1000 Cut Journey — directed by Courtney Cogburn and Elise Ogle

trailer for the immersive environment film “1000 Cut Journey”

Part short film, part sociological study, 1000 Cut Journey is a 10-minute immersive experience film developed by VR labs at Stanford and Columbia universities and funded by Brown University. By compiling the data of users’ various reactions to the scenes of the film, Journey asks an interesting question: Can VR teach racial empathy?

While that’s a lot to ask a short immersive film to do, there are moments when the film truly lives up to these ideals. While in the virtual environment, you become Michael Sterling, a black man growing up in contemporary America. As you go through three specific scenes (1st grade, teenager, adult), you learn what it’s like to see the world through his eyes. While there are certain commands you can choose to obey (or not), the one pervasive feeling you can’t option out of is that of vulnerability and being watched. This is especially true in an encounter you have with the police, but also shows up with other seemingly everyday people (job interviewers, secretaries, policemen) who become real threats and symbols of shame and oppression.

To further enhance the immersive experience, the graphics team creates intricate and detailed worlds in which you can walk, including rooms, offices and even a New York street. Though this is certainly only the beginning of immersive VR filmmaking, the hype is real and the integration of narrative storytelling and technology will only get better.

Coast 360: Virtual Day in the Delta — directed by Launch Media

watch the entire “Coast 360” film here!

A “Virtual Day in the Delta” is a short documentary that tackles the issue of wetland loss in Louisiana. The experience fully immerses you in the sights and sound of the Louisiana wetlands. The documentary not only alerts the viewers to the crisis at hand but tries to offer solutions in which they can help. The VR experience helps elevate the short from merely being informative to incredibly affecting. The doc gives both on-the-ground and in-the-air looks at a barrier restoration project, an area on the Louisiana coast where land is actually being gained back. It provides a necessary look into a pressing issue and gives the viewers the information they need to get involved.

To learn how you can get involved in averting this serious crisis to the southern United States, visit http://mississippiriverdelta.org/our-coastal-crisis/.

Octane — directed by Jeron Braxton

Though it’s not VR, this film installation project has plenty of eye-popping visuals. This director already won at Sundance for a different short film and his early acclaim is unquestionably justified. The first half of Octane takes place on a racetrack, ostensibly to Hell and back. In its techno soundtrack and Nintendo 64 visual callbacks, the film bathes its audience in a retro aesthetic that isn’t just played for sentimentality.

Along this highway to Hell come many gruesome history lessons, including several striking, dynamic animations of police brutality, Native American subjugation and more. Relying on exaggerated color palettes, darkly comic takes on American billboards and other grotesque and abstract images, Braxton finds the hysteria and exploitation of the black experience. As a piece of animation, it’s an experimental marvel; as an installation piece, complete with surround sound speakers and deep, heavy bass, Octane best delivers on its promise to never let up in an exhibit hall setting.