Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 Shows VR at its Most Humanising, Empowering and Emotive

Sheffield has been invaded. Doc/Fest 2015, a six-day celebration of documentaries of all shapes and sizes, has taken hold of the city. Step off of the train and into the heart of festival and you’ll have a hard time finding an area that isn’t branded with its bold logo. It can be seen either waved high on banners, plastered on bus stops or on bags strapped around the shoulders of creators and fans as they scramble from one screening to the next. This is a show that recognises the best in documentary making, highlighting important and striking works that inform, involve and empower, and Sheffield is clearly – and rightly – proud to be its host.

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Available on the weekend of this year’s event was a Virtual Reality (VR) Arcade, holding nine experiences for people to come and try. Walking up the path to the venue, past scores of travellers that were excitedly swapping schedules for the day ahead, it felt like this exhibition had an uphill battle ahead of it. VR hasn’t yet earned its place in so many mediums and here it was on a stage on which it could have easily embarrassed itself in front of established flimmakers and a new wave of future creators by showing unengaging content littered the technical hiccups prone to the development kits and early hardware on display.

Rest assured; this was far from the case. In fact, Sheffield Doc/Fest put on one of the best showcases for VR yet seen, presenting an incredibly diverse range of experiences that between them educated, disturbed, delighted and, in some cases, proved every bit as powerful as some of the show’s headline acts.

The VR Arcade held an assortment of Oculus Rifts, Gear VRs and Google Cardboards, each with a short experience to view. Just as the devices were varied, so too were the films that they showed, covering everything from the struggles of Syrian refugees to discovering the forgotten wrecks beneath Bikini Atoll. Each of these films were varied in tone and structure but revealed common elements throughout that demonstrated the incredible potential for VR.

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From a purely visual point of view, each one of these projects managed to impress. A quick peek at the immersive possibilities 360 degree VR video could be seen in Polar Sea 360 on Google Cardboard. This brief experience took viewers on an enlightening trip over the ice caps, treating them to sights that they’ll likely never see in real life to the tune of a soothing orchestral soundtrack. Hovering above the sea and looking off into the far distance managed to provide a momentary feeling of having left that small gallery and really gliding over the dramatic landscape. It was just a moment, but even coming that close is an achievement to be celebrated.

Other experiences also managed to steal the audience’s breath while introducing a narrative aspect. Walking in New York, for example, follows the creation of a new project from French artist JR. Filmed in April of this year, the piece documents JR’s journey as he pasted an image of a 20-year-old Azerbaijani immigrant named Elmar Aliyev in this stride onto the street outside the iconic Flatiron Building. Here New York could be seen like never before with sweeping aerial views of the city and an eye-widening bird’s eye look at the finished article.

However, for all of its stunning sights, the most powerful moment in Walking in New York occurs when, following the completion of the work, JR and his team surround the camera and hold a huge group hug with it in the centre. It’s an incredibly impactful moment that makes the user feel like a key part of this project and one of the team.

In fact, human interaction easily proves to be the most powerful device at play in these documentaries. Clouds Over Sidra, a heart-breaking film that follows a 12 year old refugee’s life in the wake of the Syrian crisis, creates several unforgettable moments in this way. After years of watching TV appeals it can be easy to approach a piece such as this with a jaded and harsh mind-set, but surely anyone that watches this ground-breaking piece would have a hard time not feeling at least something.

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At one point the viewer is looking on as a line of children shuffle into school for the day when one young boy breaks free of the crowd, curiously and playfully approaching the camera with a huge grin on his face. It’s nearly impossible not to smile back; the boy side-steps around the kit, seemingly aware that someone is looking back at him, before re-joining the queue further down. It lasts just a few seconds but the viewer can’t help but look on. It’s an immensely human moment, no different to how one might act if they were really standing on that spot and the boy had come to meet them in person and surely not something that any viewer will be forgetting any time soon.

Elsewhere, VR is used to instil a sense of wonder and intrigue. Not every piece was strictly a documentary; artist Oscar Raby’s Hola provided a break from the heavy hitting, truth seeking experiences with a 3D scene that used Leap Motion hand-tracking technology. Here viewers are inserted into a psychedelic world in which a conveyor belt almost feeds the user an avalanche of broken electronic devices that they can reach out and grab. It’s a piece that quickly overwhelms with its message on the waste problem that comes with these broken gadgets.

Alchemy VR, a new studio from Atlantic Productions and Zoo VFX, achieved a similar sense of fascination with a trailer for Bikini Atoll. Here viewers are given a chance to explore the wrecks sitting at the bottom of the ocean surrounding the Marshall Islands after the USA tested 23 incredibly powerful nuclear devices between 1946 – 1958.Those just a tease, getting a sense of the scale of the rusted relics in VR is truly a sight to behold, showing how the technology can do beyond what’s possible with more traditional documentaries.

Much less comforting but just as effective is Kiya, the latest in a line of shocking immersive journalism pieces from Nonny de la Pena. From a glance one might think that Pena’s work, which switches out real video for admittedly dated visuals, might be a step back compared to the other movies on display. In truth the sickening feeling it creates in one’s stomach burns the events into memory as you helplessly look on as two sisters try to save their sibling from an attack by an abusive ex-boyfriend. Projects such as this and indeed Clouds Over Sidra perfectly demonstrate how VR can be used as a call to action, bringing viewers closer to the horrors of issues that can otherwise seem so distant.

VR may still be in its infancy, but some of the work shown at Doc/Fest’s VR Arcade would make you think otherwise. In the space of the few hours it takes to view all of these pieces you can experience the highs and lows of human emotion, generating joy, sympathy, disturbing shocks and life-affirming wonder. If this is what the technology is capable of when it’s still in the early stages, imagine what we’ll be seeing at next year’s festival and the many to follow after that.

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