Virtual Reality Takes a Political Turn in the Trump Era

Meeting a Monster is incredibly painful. It’s supposed to be. Created using audio recordings and re-enactments, the virtual reality experience recounts the story of Angela King, a woman who spent eight years in the white power movement and is now trying to confront the person she was—and is. It would be hard to watch at any time, but now, just a few months after torch-wielding white supremacists took to the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, the reality it presents is even more gut-wrenching.

Gabriela Arp, who created Meeting a Monster, knows this. She started making her VR experience before images of torch-wielding white nationalists flooded the news, but it took on even more urgency in the wake of last August’s Unite the Right rally. She’s not trying to show there are good people on both sides—she’s trying to show someone’s struggle to leave one for the other. “As I was working with these former white supremacists while the news of Charlottesville was coming in, I just kept being shocked by the complexity of these individuals,” Arp says. “I didn’t want to give compassion or empathy to what they did but to show them in a way that shows the complexity of how they entered the movement … and how they were able to get out.”

Meeting a Monster is just the beginning; this year, the Tribeca Film Festival's immersive line-up is heavy. Sure, there'll be some fun, fantastical, space-odyssey experiences, but a large segment of the virtual reality, augmented reality, and 360-degree offerings will have some sort of social or political message—nearly a dozen of the 34 titles on offer. That’s no coincidence. Most of the experiences were made and submitted in the time since President Trump took office and, like other artists before them, their creators saw an imperative to reflect the current political climate.

Meeting a Monster, about one woman’s journey out of the white supremacist movement, is even more urgent after last summer’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. "When you get into virtual reality, there’s more activity in it," says Tribeca Film Festival programmer Loren Hammonds. "You become more of a participant in her life and her choices. It just really helps you kind of understand this, as opposed to just seeing a group of people with tiki torches marching down the street."
Meeting a Monster

“We are obviously in a highly politicized time and it's often the role of artists to allow us to see this through their filter,” says Loren Hammonds, who programs the festival’s immersive lineup. “One of the things that was really remarkable to me this year was the fact that creators, instead of looking at fantastic worlds or worlds that we can't reach, were really using the medium of VR to speak about real-world issues.”

Among those issues? Take a deep breath: racism, the impact of atomic bombings, climate change, gentrification, LGBTQ equality, airport interrogation of Muslim travelers, and the white supremacy movement in the US. That's not a lot of levity, but the slate represents some of the many new techniques creators are bringing to immersive storytelling. Documentary and non-narrative experiences have been there from the start, but creatives are now looking at how to use their skills in different ways, says Saschka Unseld. The Pixar vet made animated films like Henry and Dear Angelica for Oculus, and is coming to Tribeca this year with The Day the World Changed, an immersive look at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

“The more we feel like something in the world is not right, the more we crave to expose those things and look at them; certainly there has been in the last year and half a stronger kind of energy to do something against the things we’re not happy with,” says Unseld, who made The Day with United Nations VR founder Gabo Arora at their new company Tomorrow Never Knows. “It’s our role to not make you feel like you have to eat your vegetables. The word ‘entertainment’ has a negative connotation, but [immersive experiences] build this bridge between people who want to know about these things, and want to do the right thing, but don’t want to fall into depression afterwards.”

That doesn’t mean that Unseld and Arora’s project, or any of the VR or AR experiences at Tribeca will be easy to take in—that's intentional. 1,000 Cut Journey, made in conjunction with Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, puts viewers in the shoes of a black man as a child, adolescent, and young adult. It was made based on Columbia professor Courtney Cogburn’s research into the effects of racism and is intended to give viewers who may have never experienced racism an opportunity to understand what it looks like beyond yelled epithets—the subtle gestures, the microaggressions.

Because of its deeply affecting nature, Cogburn says she worked with Tribeca to create a space for viewers to collect themselves after experiencing 1,000 Cut Journey. It was, she says, not made for people of color—in fact, some may actually find it triggering—but rather self-identified liberal whites. If the piece has the impact Cogburn hopes it does, it will help those intended viewers see issues in a way they may have trouble doing in their daily lives.

1,000 Cut Journey gives viewers the perspective of Michael Sterling, a black man experiencing racism as a child, adolescent, and young adult. "One part that was really important to me is that this wasn't reductive in a sense that someone's yelling at you and calling you a name or using a racial slur on the street," says co-creator Courtney Cogburn. "We really wanted to push and think about more complex, nuanced representation of racism, the types of things that come up that people may not recognize or even agree with as racism if they don't see it in their own experiences."
Tobin Asher

“My hope is that they come out saying, ‘You know, I thought I understood this but I don’t,’ or ‘I’m looking at this and feeling differently about this than I did going in,’” Cogburn says. “From an empirical sense, I’d want those people to be more open to listening and maybe receive a new story differently or see data differently as a result of having gone through an experience like this.”

Seeing beyond data points is a common theme throughout many of the experiences at Tribeca this year. The docu-series This Is Climate Change is based on the facts of global warming, but displays them by taking viewers to places in Greenland, Somalia, and elsewhere that are being transformed by environmental shifts. The idea, according to project co-creator Danfung Dennis, is to make people change their behaviors, rather than just nod knowingly and move on. “I think VR can trigger that; that is the power of it,” he says. “It’s not just the awareness.”

Terminal 3, meanwhile, focuses less on the headlines about Trump’s Muslim travel ban and instead puts people in an AR experience where they’re asked to be an agent who must interrogate a traveler and determine if they should be let into the country. Inspired by creator Asad Malik’s own experiences as a Pakistani man traveling to the US, the experience uses the Hololens to let participants talk to Muslim travelers from a wide range of backgrounds in a set built to look like an actual interrogation room. Because Terminal 3 is an AR experience, Malik hopes it will give people a more visceral experience as opposed to VR, which he feels can often just create short-term empathy.

“There’s just so much happening in this country right now in terms of politics and dealing with diversity and travel and migration,” Malik says. “I wanted to address those topics, and what made the most sense to me was to do it through this kind of lens.”

The Tribeca experiences are also meant to bring about discussions that continue after the festival is over. Arp—whose Making a Monster was, like a few projects at Tribeca, sponsored by Oculus’ VR for Good initiative—hopes VR can give a perspective that comments on social media can’t. “All of the shouting we see on social media isn’t what drove any of the people I interviewed out of the [white supremacist] movement,” she says. “All of them met someone, usually a person of color, and that completely changed their viewpoint, and that ideology slowly started to unravel through that experience.”

Providing perspective is what Tribeca organizers are hoping for. Much like the traditional film slate, which includes of-the-moment titles like The Fourth Estate, a documentary about the New York Times’ coverage of the first year of Trump’s administration, and Roll Red Roll about the Steubenville rape case, the goal is to show filmmakers (and VR makers and AR makers) responding to the world they live in now as much as possible.

“I take the responsibility of curator really seriously, because it’s a medium that is still growing,” says Hammonds. “We're known for strong documentaries and storytelling, and I think it’s important to parallel that in VR and make sure those creators have a voice.”

Read more: https://www.wired.com/story/tribeca-film-festival-vr-political/

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