The immersive VR series 4 Feet High invites you into an Argentinian high school, alongside a student who is disabled, experiencing the world from a wheelchair-level view. Credit: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Natalia Roca

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival soldiered on in the shadow of COVID-19 with newly appointed festival director Tabitha Jackson testing the limits of virtual event planning on the grandest scale. The hybrid socially-distanced in-person and virtual festival highlighted only 73 feature films, significantly less than its typical 120. However, smaller did not mean less inclusive, as participants came from more than 120 countries around the world and all 50 U.S. states—there were also 80 international journalists invited (an increase over 51 from the previous year) through the Press Inclusion Initiative, of which I was fortunate enough to be a part for a second year.

To face their biggest technical challenge—seamless straight-to-your-couch delivery of heretofore unreleased films—Sundance built a custom platform that streamed premieres during a three hour initial window, and for 24 hours the following day, allowing viewers to participate in a live group chat prior to the show and ask questions during a post-credits Q&A. The virtual screenings were a success, serving more patrons than previous in-person years, and dramatically increasing accessibility for those whom attendance at the festival has historically been difficult or impossible.

Chicago has long served as inspiration for great film and this year was no exception, highlighting the highly-anticipated premiere of Judas and the Black Messiah, set in Chicago and dramatizing the life and murder of Black Panther Fred Hampton. Additionally, there were shorts Don’t Go Telling Your Mama, a cheeky stylistic dramatization of flash cards created by Black educators in Chicago in the 1970s, and BJ’s Mobile Gift Shop, by filmmaker Jason Park. Park’s film is a touching ode to Chicago street hustlers, Korean-American culture, and how society treats them. “It was important for me ultimately to represent and be honest about that experience being in Chicago, being in the midwest, and being Korean, and kind of the naïveté around race,” Park says. “Someone like BJ who very much does not have the time to address and sit down with every complex racial issue, or even just a gross racist moment that happens in the film, he’s going to do it in the way he knows how and that is true to him . . . I just love films that showcase characters that don’t necessarily have it all figured out.”

But the highlight of this year’s festival was something completely new. Sundance attempted to capture in-person camaraderie by expanding its New Frontier program through the creation of an online VR portal. As part of the Press Inclusion Initiative I received an Oculus Quest 2 Virtual Reality headset that allowed access. As someone whose prior gaming experience was limited to The Legend of Zelda, there was a learning curve. The portal opens in a freaky space-garden foyer, which leads to various communal spaces like Cinema House and Film Party, where my avatar could “spacewalk” in the cosmos, chat virtually, or watch movies with others. A gallery area allowed visitors to log into various multimedia experiences, ranging from the narrative, to sonic, to mixed-media experiences. It’s truly unique, exhilarating fun.

The immersive VR series 4 Feet High, by creators Maria Belen Poncio and Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, invites you into an Argentinian high school, alongside Juana (Marisol Agostina Irigoyen), a student who is disabled, as she and her peers fight for comprehensive sex education and sexual independence. From a wheelchair-level view, you can rotate 360 degrees to see reactions from characters or graphics floating in the sky, though the direction nudges your attention to the changing focal points. Each episode is less than ten minutes, which is more than enough due to the intensity of the VR experience. I noticed that the dissonance between my surroundings moving as I remained stationary created a bit of equilibrium disturbance, but it wasn’t enough to set me off of VR completely.

Joe Brewster, a cocreator of the virtual experience The Changing Same, says, “I would suggest that we might all be in goggles ten years from now—a form that are much more sophisticated than these big clunky things.” His project, created with Michèlle Stephenson and Yasmin Elayat, places visitors in a magical realist social justice narrative that spans 400 years of racial inequality. Stephenson says, “The iterative creative process to get to production is different . . . Volumetric filmmaking (a form of VR capture coined by their partner Scatter media) is more like theater. You can’t rely on ‘cut,’ you can’t rely on the edit to create meaning. You have to create meaning from the space, the world, and the dialogue, and also the focus that you try to make the user have their attention on.”

The first episode has a firm grip on your attention, placing the viewer alongside a wrongfully arrested Black man in the back seat of a police car. This emotionally intense experience leaves you both wanting and dreading to find out what happens next. When asked about the implications of experiencing racial violence in VR, Brewster says, “Our practice is liberation, it is not looking away. We are not shying away from our complicated history of oppression . . . How do we share this information in a way that allows people to tolerate and to heal?”

For those ready to embrace VR storytelling with open arms, Elayat sees several barriers, beginning with making the headsets accessible to everyone, as well as making sure that the projects are available for download outside of Sundance—which unfortunately, The Changing Same currently is not. Says Elayat, “COVID has ensured more sales of headsets, but platforms like the Quest prefer stories to be more game-like. There are a lot of hurdles but we are getting there . . . These stories have to be there, even if accessibility is still a problem being solved and our entire ecosystem is a problem being solved.”

“We are working with AfroPunk (and Color of Change) around potential distribution,” Stephenson says. “Our idea is to be able to work with them at the festival, have an installation at the park.” The team garners their inspiration from the younger generation, including Stephenson and Brewster’s son who also had a project at Sundance called The Quantum Summer, one segment of Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler, a collection of multimedia projects inspired by the works of the Hugo Award-winning sci-fi author. Their project has been advertised outside the festival through a series of pop-ups that include the VR installation, works from other Black Artists, and a DJ spinning, all in the same space.

Despite the barriers to viewing their work, the small collective of trailblazing Black artists remain optimistic. Brewster says, “We don’t mind being pioneers. We don’t mind being the first in our community. Someone has to do it!”  v