Sundance Film Festival is typically known for its independent films and documentaries, snapped up by big distribution companies. Given its reputation, it’s no surprise to see filmmakers and distributors flock to Park City in Utah every year. It would also seem most plausible for conventional filmmakers to push the frontier of new immersive storytelling formats such as virtual reality (VR). VRFocus spoke to Gabo Arora from Tomorrow Never Knows on directing ZIKR: A Sufi Revival which had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival.
Gabo Arora, the director of ZIKR: A Sufi Revival calls it the first interactive and social virtual reality documentary ever made. It’s also the first VR documentary to be bought by Dogwoof, a UK documentary distribution company. Dogwoof is known for purchasing the rights to thought-provoking documentaries such as BlackFish, Dior and I, The Act of Killing and Carteland to name just a few. Arora’s background has primarily been working for the United Nations. His VR documentary Clouds over Sidra has done extremely well and at Sheffield Doc/Fest was chosen as one of the stand out VR experiences of that VR Arcade.
“I’ve been a huge fan of Dogwoof and I think anybody that’s into documentary filmmaking realises that they’ve been, they are the greatest in their sort of catalogue and the types of stories they distribute and support are always things that are important for the world and high element of altruistic craft, which is exactly what I’ve always tried to do with my work,” says Gabo
Gabo was trying to use VR’s potential as an experiential medium to bridge users into rituals. “VR is giving us the possibility of being somewhere, but now it’s also allowing us to interact with the environment in ways that I think can really help you transcend your reality to understand issues that we couldn’t understand without it.”
ZIKR: A Sufi Revival focuses on the ritual experience of Sufism, also known as Tasawwuf in the Muslim world and often defined as ‘Islamic mysticism’. The documentary explores the religious, ritual and being of how humans connect with themselves, the music and the religion. In ZIKR: A Sufi Revival four users are asked to put on an HTC Vive headset and go into the experience. They will see a combination of 360 degree footage of individuals dancing and singing as well as hear individuals describe what Sufism means to them. Users are connected to one another through virtual beads, and the more they move or interact with one another the more the virtual worlds alters around them. Users are also able to sometimes join in the music and are given a virtual tambourine if they feel the urge to join in. The other users are only visible as ghostly avatars, but you are able to see how they are connect to you through the movement of the beads in the circle.
So why choose the HTC Vive over an Oculus Rift? ” I like the sensors and ability to track, I think it could have been done for other headsets but I think for our developers it was just easier and we found that we liked that too.” Arora says that he doesn’t necessarily have a preference but that the Oculus Rift needs more work to make it more room-scale.
Currently ZIKR: a Sufi Revival is being discussed with various locations to exhibit in museums or out-of-home entertainment locations. Then potentially enable it for Steam users to explore at home. With Dogwoof on board Gabo hopes that this process will be easier. “We need someone like Dogwoof, who’ve shown tremendous success in the traditional realm and now bridge that gap in virtual reality.” To find out more watch the video below.