Highlights From Sheffield’s Alternate Realities Exhibition 2019

Guest writer Kate Parkinson’s top picks from this year’s Alternate Realities Exhibition at Sheffield DocFest 2019.

Diversity took centre stage at Sheffield Doc/Fest’s digital art programme. Of the 28 immersive and interactive experiences exhibited, 50% were made by women and there was a focus on LGBTQI+ communities. These are my top picks from Alternate Realities 2019, curated by Dan Tucker.

Common Ground
Screenshot from Common Ground.

Through The Wardrobe

Most clothes are gendered ‘male or female’, so what happens if you don’t identify as only ‘man’ or ‘woman’, asks Through The Wardrobe director Rob Eagle. This mixed reality (MR) experience, which premiered at Alternate Realities, invites visitors to find out as they step inside the genderqueer wardrobes of four nonbinary people. Trying on items of Jamie’s clothing made hearing them talk about rejecting traditional gender expectations so much more powerful. With its clever layering of digital and physical Through The Wardrobe reminds visitors that the clothes we wear allow us all to create our own stories and narratives about our bodies.

Common Ground

Common Ground explores South London’s notorious Aylesbury Estate, one of the largest social housing estates in Europe. From the outside the monolithic concrete high-rise is intimidating and unwelcoming, but director Darren Emmerson shows a different side, inviting visitors inside the Aylesbury to meet the resident’s as they fight to save their homes from gentrification. The documentary masterfully weaves together stereoscopic 360 video and photogrammetry with 3D modelling and archive footage, allowing visitors to see how the design, planning and dreams of utopian living compare to the realities of today. Common Ground is the first project to be co-funded by the UK’s new StoryFutures Academy.

Traveling While Black Felix Paul Studios
Still from the virtual reality experience “Traveling While Black” courtesy of Felix & Paul Studios.

4 Feet: Blind Date

4 Feet: Blind Date by María Belén Poncio and Rosario Perazolo Masjoan tells the story of 18-year-old Juana as she explores her sexuality. Juana, like Perazolo Masjoan, is a wheelchair user and the ‘4 Feet’ in the film’s title refers to the height that she, and the viewer, sees the world from. The film is a confident portrayal of disability and sexuality that’s awkward and humorous in equal measures.

Traveling While Black

Travelling While Black is a 360 degree documentary by Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross William and Emmy Award-winning studio Felix & Paul that explores how race and racism have impacted the lives of African Americans for decades. The film centres around the complicated legacy of the ‘Green Book’, a road trip survival guide published in the 1930s that gave travel tips to African-Americans so they could avoid racist establishments along their journey. As a viewer, you share a table with some of the patrons of Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington D.C, one of the ‘safe’ restaurants listed in the ‘Green Book’, and listen as they reflect on their experiences of racial segregation in the 1950s right through to the police violence of today. Looking into the eyes of Samaria Rice, the mother of 12-year-old Tamir who was shot dead by police in 2014, is a truly gut-wrenching experience.

Potato Dreams
Screenshot from Potato Dreams

Potato Dreams

Potato Dreams is a really quirky and surreal autobiographical VR documentary which tells the story of director Wes Hurley, aka Little Potato, growing up with his mother in a collapsing Soviet Union. In just six minutes the film races through the grim living conditions, the corruption, food scarcity, violence, and threats of persecution due to Hurley’s homosexuality. The climax is his escape to America with his mum who becomes a ‘mail-order-bride’. It sounds bleak but Potato Dreams is a really lovely film, with an unexpected happy ending.

Other experiences that caught my eye include: this year’s festival commission, Spectre, by Bill Posters and Daniel Howe which reveals the sinister secrets of the Digital Influence Industry and the dangers of AI-generated deep fake videos; My Mother’s Kitchen by Maeve Marsden and Tea Uglow, an interactive documentary that tells the stories of eight LGBTQI+ individuals through their intimate memories of their mother’s kitchens; Echo by Georgie Pinn which uses real-time facial tracking to blur the boundaries of self and others, creating shared identities through a shared experience. Another unmissable hit is Camille Duvelleroy’s interactive documentary comic, Panama Al Brown: A Mysterious Force, which brings to life the story of gay boxing sensation and featherweight world champion Panama Al Brown, who hated to box. None are VR experiences but all push the boundaries of what it means to be a storyteller in the digital age.

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