Sundance 2020 New Frontier: Diverse, Racism-Focused Immersive VR/AR Experiences - AmNews Curtain Raiser


Thursday, January 30, 2020

Sundance 2020 New Frontier: Diverse, Racism-Focused Immersive VR/AR Experiences

The Book of Distance

The New Frontier at Sundance 2020, currently underway in the second week has some very visually interesting and diverse immersive VR/AR experiences.

Two installations that particularly stood out to me – The Book of Distance and Still Here, had racial discrimination as the central focus of their narratives. Although both the immersive pieces are period-centric, highlighting racial prejudice, it is still as relevant in 2020, where people of color still face a not-so-subtle micro-aggression.

The Book of Distance is about Yonezo Okita who in 1935 left his home in Hiroshima, Japan, and began a new life in Canada. Then war and state-sanctioned racism changed everything—he became the enemy. Three generations later, his grandson, artist and writer/director Randall Okita leads us on an interactive virtual pilgrimage through emotional geography of immigration and family to recover what was lost.

The Book of Distance blends techniques from mechanical sculpture, film, and stage to redefine personal storytelling in virtual reality. Family archives add a haunting layer of realism. 2D and 3D hand-crafted sets reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints, evocative character design and seamless choreography combine with surprising moments of interaction to gently whisk us across the ocean and through the years.

Randall Okita is a masterful storyteller and artist, his talent reflected through the brilliant visual effects and animation. The viewer becomes a participating character and before you know it, you become emotionally invested and involved in Yonezo’s journey and the racism he faces during his life in Canada. Together we reimagine a significant moment in history and take part in a very personal journey of loss and recovery. 

Okita's passion to tell his grandfather's story is still active and alive as he explains why he made this interactive experience: "The Book of Distance is my attempt to recover all those things my grandfather didn’t say—including certain moments that may have been too painful for him to remember. I wanted to reimagine what he lived through, to recreate an experience that allows others to participate and to bear witness."

Still Here

The visceral experiences of over twelve formerly incarcerated women who have re-entered society are at the core of Still Here, which was conceived as an interactive audio, VR/AR experience by Al Jazeera Contrast head and lead creator Zahra Rasool and journalist Sarah Springer along with a team of creatives from the New York City community. Told cinematically and through the lens of a fictional character named Jasmine Smith, who returns to Harlem after 15 years in prison, the narrative is crafted together with women who have spent time in prison and are part of Women’s Prison Association (WPA). Still Here represents a pioneering transmedia approach to storytelling and signifies a new direction in collaborative and community-centered, immersive journalism.

Rasool, an emerging force in immersive journalism, commented, “Providing direct access to personal stories and voices that matter is at the heart of our mission, and we are thrilled that the Sundance Film Festival recognizes the importance of inclusion and the necessity to democratize the creative process and push the boundaries of traditional narratives.”

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