LA Film Festival’s ‘The Portal’ debuts in Playa Vista
By Christina Campodonico
It may be impossible to actually walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, but for a few hours I felt as if I had shed my skin for another’s.
Strapped into a virtual reality headset, I’m seeing the Amazonian rainforest through the eyes of a female shaman. I’m piecing together the past of a gay man struck down by AIDS. And I’m learning what it’s like to walk through life while black.
These were a few of the experiences I engaged with at “The Portal,” the L.A. Film Festival’s first-ever VR and immersive storytelling showcase held this September at Loyola Marymount University’s new Playa Vista campus, located at the Brickyard.
In this year’s LAFF competition, 42% of films were directed by women and 39% were directed by people of color. “The Portal” continued that festival trend by highlighting VR films made by women and stories that invited you to step into diverse bodies and worlds.
Over the course of the two-day festival, you could immerse yourself in the transcendent spiritual prayers of Sufi Muslims, or go through the celestial experience of being abducted by aliens.
Other VR experiences brought you closer to Earth, like Columbia assistant professor Dr. Courtney Cogburn’s VR simulation of living life as a black man. In “1000 Cut Journey,” you are confronted with acts of racism blatant and covert — a teacher blames you for riling up your classmates, a job interviewer mistakes your white counterpart for an Ivy Leaguer, when you actually have the prestigious pedigree. In one harrowing moment, a cop — for no reason — tells you to get down on your knees and put your hands up. The command is so fear-inducing that you follow it. It’s a part of the experience that sticks with a lot of people.
“The police scene was very frightening and disturbing,” writes one anonymous viewer on a white board next to the simulation. “It was really sad how I was accused of so many things I didn’t do,” writes another.
Such first-person VR experiences tap into people’s empathetic capacities, notes Cogburn, who hopes to use data from “1000 Cut” to inform future VR experiences tackling racism.
“VR gives us an opportunity to put someone into an experience and see it from a perspective they might not see otherwise,” she says. “It starts to become personal. It’s not the same thing as being black in the real world outside, but to have that personal experience and for us to create a gut punch, a reality check, is an important cognitive shift that needs to happen, if people are to meaningfully engage with these issues.”
Emmy award-winning director Lynette Wallworth, the creator of “Awavena,” also agrees that VR has the unique capacity to help us engage with people and places unlike our own, especially in the case of her film. It follows the spiritual journey of the first woman to become a shaman of the Amazonian Yawanawa people.
“The technology is powerful from the perspective that you’re situated inside someone’s world view,” she says. “It’s particularly compatible with indigenous peoples, especially in its documentary form because you can give such a distinct sense of place.
“It acts like a portal, carries you without your body to a place you haven’t been, intensifies color and sound, allows you to meet the ancestors and then you are returned.”
VR technology not only enhances documentary-style experiences, but also opens up new possibilities for fictional storytelling, notes “Queerskins: A Love Story” creator Illya Szilak. For her piece, which she made with creative director Cyril Tsiboulski, you’re dropped into the backseat of a car driven by a man and woman down a long country road. (You can even feel the seat rumble.) From bits of their conversation and a box filled with mementos, which you can rifle through with Occulus Rift hand controllers, you piece together the life of Sebastian, the dead son of the couple who tragically died of AIDS.
You’re not just in the story. You’re also interacting with it.
“What we really wanted to do,” says Szilak, “was put you into that situation of being behind your parents, who are fighting in a car. You feel helpless and then gradually your own imagination, your own history is harnessed in service of the story.”
Ultimately, Szilak wants her VR story to bring attention to your body, regardless of whether you identify as LGBTQ, because that feeling of being trapped in the backseat — in that “universally familiar situation” — may help you understand what someone like Sebastian might have gone through as the child of conservative parents.
“We didn’t want to make a piece where you could pretend to be a gay person,” she says. “You’re still going to be whoever you were when you went in. … I’m really interested in using the experience of being embodied. I want to use that in VR. That’s something I can’t really do in film.”