by Greg Dolgopolov

Oh, what sweet irony, a virtual event at a physical film festival that had to go virtual! The Melbourne Film Festival XR event is quite remarkable, especially for audiences who have experienced VR exhibitions at a film festival previously.

First of all, it is free, which is a pleasant change to the $15 a pop VR 9-minute experiences at previous MIFF events that were less than compelling.

This excellent selection of nine so called “extended reality” 360° virtual worlds is a terrific primer for anyone who has been VR-curious but hesitant. You get a sense of how it could work on your dinky home computer screen – probably best with a tablet – and that means any hesitancy associated with motion sickness or nausea is no longer relevant.

However, the promise that all the experiences are highly accessible isn’t quite right, as the three premium VRs are inaccessible without a specialised headset Oculus and Vive virtual reality headsets.

So, you won’t get to see the major pieces, the most famous being Abel Kohen’s Biolum – where you become Rachael (voiced by the sultry Charlotte Rampling), a deep-sea diver navigating the ocean’s wonders and encountering a series of luminescent creatures. It won the SXSW Virtual Cinema Competition Audience Award.

A small VR confession – I have looked into a whale’s eye. Not a real whale’s eye, even though I have been close to whales in nature, but a totally believable and fully compelling whale’s eye as part of my first VR foray with the work TheBlu, and that was a totally transformative and unforgettable experience, so I am a VR convert and fan. I have seen many cool projects over the past 6 or more years of this burgeoning tech, and this exhibition is highly emblematic.

The works that really stood out: the Spanish presentation by Igor Cortadellas of Symphony –an incredible experience of embeddedness where you feel that you are drifting among the 100 players of a major orchestra as you are swept from inside a violin and carried away by the possibly animated horsehair of the bow and into the bowels of the orchestra that moves from Beethoven to Bernstein. It is a wonderful introduction to the intimate experience of being on stage with a major orchestra and the special sounds of the instruments and giving a visual interpretation of music. I went through three times.

I really enjoy the experiential quality of 360 videos that allow you to roam around a space. The Bridge to Sovietopia [pictured] directed Marie Alice Wolfszahn is a historical documentary that dissects the grandeur of design and gigantisms of scientific innovation in a poetic discourse through the remnants of scientific triumph, crumbling temples of progress and sites of fading grandeur. Some may have seen the doco The Russian Woodpecker about Duga-1 – that imposing steel structure that towers over the irradiated forest near Chernobyl, and this feels like we are taking a journey through that zone.

Although I missed out on the major works, the 360 video provided a pleasing sample of a selection of works which encompass a broad range of aesthetic and thematic concerns that demonstrate the power and beauty of VR. The engagement with other audience members is clunky and, in my experience, not at all interactive and frankly I didn’t really feel the need for that – I get enough virtual connections at the moment. But this is a very good virtual experience of remote VR.

MIFF XR is available until August 22, 2021


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