Venice Goes Virtual

in 74th Venice International Film Festival

by Paulo Portugal

Venice is going virtual! For the first time ever in a film festival we had new slate of VR competition films: 22 Virtual Reality projects, ranging between four and 55 minutes, and positioning itself as a reference-point in the new frontier of moving images. But is it cinema? Tsai Ming Liang, perhaps the most unlikely filmmaker to encounter in VR, offered us his unique 360º view, while maintaining intact his own vision. Go figure…

These days, the competition between class-A festivals sees them eager to explore new terrains in the ever-changing world of film. Just a few months ago, Cannes included in its SélectionOfficielle streaming TV-movies—those that will be seen only in the festival and then in people’s homes. Cannes also showcased Alejandro González Iñárritu’s very successful take on virtual reality, Carne y Arena. Venice last year showed Jesus VR: The Story of Christ, the first attempt of a feature-film in this alternate-reality format.

One year later, the tiny six-acre island of Lazaretto Vecchio (a two-minute boat-trip from the Lido)— which in the XV and XVI centuries was used as a leprosarium for victims of plague—displayed the wonders of the future of moving images in renovated, spacious galleries. Here we spent a morning and part of an afternoon trying to get as close as possible to virtual reality.

The island was divided in VR Theatre, Stand Up environments and Installations. In each environment people were turning in their chairs and moving their heads, trying to figure out the space they were inhabiting, in movements that soon became familiar to a much larger audience. While walking around and remembering the past, we wondered about a virtual reality horror film haunted by the thousands of corpses that are still buried in that place. But enough of fiction; let’s get into reality… virtual reality!

With the huge Oculus headsets on and high-end headphones in place, we tried to navigate this new environment. Of course, in a VR experience you cannot just walk around at will—you stay or go where the camera goes. We’re probably just baby steps away from something else. But is it cinema? Probably not. It’s more an exciting audiovisual experiment that basically allows us to have a 360º view of what’s going on. Let’s say that we go as close as we can into a theatre stage. Technology still needs to go much further to give us a crisp clean image—and not, in many cases too pixellated. Also, in an environment totally free of dizziness. Let’s take it from here, shall we?

Versatile Malaysian-Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming Liang brought to us the feeling of slow cinema to VR with his 55 minute The Deserted, shown in the competition section. One might be surprised by this development, but only if we forget that Tsai has worked in video and art installations, performances as well as theatre and painting.

We will have long shots and no dialogue—not those of people inside a cinema that is closing down, as in Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), but of a sick man having back treatment with electro shocks, while his deceased mother cooks for him and observes. From the window of his tiny room, we could observe a woman walking down the road. In another shot, a POV from inside a huge bathtub observes this naked protagonist with his huge friendly fish and an imaginary woman with whom he’s making love.

In short, this is Tsai Ming Liang’s cinema, indeed: still long in shot-duration and decidedly wet, as we feel surrounded by rain that falls hard on the forest, but also connected with an awkward sense of time and intimately close to the characters.

The Deserted was for us the first take with VR in Lazaretto Vecchio. But not the last. We got inside television’s crossover to VR, via the Italian action packed blockbuster series of Gomorra, and the mix of videogame and adventure in Snatch VR Heist, both based on small-screen predecessors. One got close to the amazing feeling of being inside Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass, as the crime writer that becomes the main character of an animated thriller, in My Name Is Peter Stillman by Lysander Ashton and Leo Warner.One saw the melting of glaciers in the 360º world of Greenland Melting.

Laurie Anderson’s and Hsin-Chien Huang animation of La Camera Insabbiata, (The Sandroom) won attention of many in an installation that allowed the viewer to fly over structures of words, drawings and stories (it won the Best VR Experience Award for Interactive Content). We could almost feel inside of a concentration camp, in The Last Goodbye, as Holocaust survivor Pinchas Gutter remembered the place where his mother and sister died. Then there was the exciting and gorgeous post-apocalyptic flooded-world of Arden’s Wake, by Eugene YK Chung, the winner of the Best VR Award from a jury chaired by John Landis alongside Céline Sciamma and Ricky Tognazzi.

During the shortest boat ride ever back to the Lido, our mind was flying, thinking about the feelings of those who witnessed the first screenings of Lumière’scinématographe in 1895. Well, maybe a bit more than that, as it’s obvious we are already facing a new language. But where is it going? Clearly, this is something that next year’s Venice VR competition can provide a better answer. Or as 2017 Golden Lion laureate Gullermo del Toro told us in an interview during the festival, “cinema as we know it will change completely in the next five, ten years. VR is the beginning of a new syntax proposition. But it’s not cinema. It’s something different. I’m curious.”

Indeed we are.

Edited by Neil Young