By Xan Brooks
A visitor to the VR competition at Lazzaretto Vecchio. ‘The irony is that the oldest film festival in the world is by far the most forward-thinking in terms of recognising new art,’ says Venice VR’s co-programmer. Photograph: Claudio Onorati/EPA
Lazzaretto Vecchio is a small ruined island in the Venetian lagoon, an arrangement of crumbling brick barns a short boat ride from the Lido. In its time it has been a leper colony, a plague quarantine and a dumping ground for stray dogs and cats. Thousands of corpses, animal and human, are believed to be piled beneath the buildings’ foundations.
Now Lazzaretto Vecchio has been reborn as the home of Venice VR, a pioneering section at this year’s Venice film festival. Abandoned structures have been refashioned as airy, minimalist galleries showcasing new work from the virtual-reality industry. Inside are a range of immersive installations and standalone exhibits, plus a 50-seat cinema. Visitors totter across the cobbles wearing Oculus headsets and lightweight earphones, thrilling to sounds and visions only they can experience. There are dramas about sea monsters and jewel thieves, home invaders and Holocaust survivors. Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises.
“The irony is that Venice, the oldest film festival in the world, is by far the most forward-thinking in terms of recognising new art forms,” says Liz Rosenthal, co-programmer of Venice VR. “It’s the first festival that has properly recognised virtual reality and made it part of the official programme, with a competition and a jury and prizes.”
The 22 films in competition are an eclectic bunch. Strictly speaking, many are not films at all. The assortment roams from the animated La Camera Insabbiata, a whimsical celebration of storytelling by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-chien Huang, to Edward Robles’ Dispatch, a hardboiled cop serial that puts us inside a suburban house as a murderer comes calling. Some of the films are escapist fantasy; others come with more serious intent. Greenland Melting is a campaigning climate change documentary that puts the viewer on the deck of an Arctic research ship to observe the glaciers in retreat.
At the far end of the barn sit the immersive installations. Jordan Tannahill’s Draw Me Close, developed in collaboration with London’s National Theatre, is a powerful elegy to the director’s late mother. Here we essentially play the role of Jordan, spirited from his mum’s deathbed and cast back to his childhood. An actor leads you through the stage-set, instructing you to open the window or draw with crayon on the floor, and then gently tucks you up in bed at the end of the day. I haven’t been tucked up in bed since I was about 12. The experience is unsettling and moving in about equal measure.
Next door to this, Alice provides light relief. This is a freewheeling virtual-reality play, sending the participant scurrying on a fraught 20-minute trip into Wonderland, where they try to catch Humpty Dumpty and chase after a crown before being yanked out through the curtains as if from a dream. I reeled back into the daylight, giggling like an idiot.
“Traditionally, VR’s two main references are cinema and video games,” says Antoine Cardon, Alice’s co-producer. “Whereas for us it has always been immersive theatre. So I think VR can mean a lot of different things. It’s not exactly cinema, it’s not games or theatre. It’s its own thing. We are rapidly reaching the point where the old comparisons lose their meaning.”
Arden’s Wake, by Eugene Chung, conjures up a beguiling diorama of a flooded planet inhabited by a plucky Pixar-esque heroine and her gruff seafaring dad. Chung has been hailed by Forbes magazine as “the DW Griffith of VR” – but even he feels that such movie parallels risk becoming a constraint.
“Drop the film analogy,” he says. “It’s an obvious point of reference but you have to know where to apply it. The idea of a feature-length story means something different in VR. The grammar is different. Back in the 1850s, opera was seen as the ideal art form. Then in the 1890s we saw the first moving pictures. We’ve had 120 years with cinema at the top of the pile. It’s probably about time we had something new emerging.”
See full article: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/sep/08/virtual-reality-vr-cinema-venice-flim-festival-humpty-dumpty