Virtual Reality and the Documentary: What to expect from HotDocs’ DocX

Notes on Blindness – Into Darkness (2016)
dir. Arnaud Colinart, Amaury Laburthe, Peter Middleton & James Spinney
Sundance Film Festival 2016

By Jeremy Wedeles

As the lineup announcement for the 2016 Hot Docs Festival approaches, theatrical docs will take centre stage, but what can we expect from DocX; Hot Docs’ second annual exhibition on interactive and immersive docs?

In the past few years there’s been a lot of buzz around virtual reality (VR), with Samsung’s Oculus Rift becoming a hot consumer item and cheaper variations like Google’s Cardboard viewer making VR accessible to the masses. (You may have also seen the Matrix-esque picture of Mark Zuckerberg walking through a roomful of VR users). Meanwhile, at the 2016 Sundance Festival’s New Frontier program, VR docs were among the more popular exhibitions. Already docs and VR have come together in some exciting projects. Whether they show up at Hot Docs or not, it bears asking: are they worth the hype?

Courtesy of Facebook

While VR is definitely an immersive and unique experience, VR docs have – until recently – been limited to relatively simple stories and modes of storytelling. Last year’s DocX exhibition featured PolarSea 360, a Canadian eco-doc, taking the viewer through the Canadian arctic through for VR headsets. It’s an exciting dive into VR and might seem completely surreal to someone trying it out for the first time, but this and several others like it mirror travelogues from the first few years of cinema – they’re impressive explorations of the technology, but not a whole lot more.

This may not be the case for long. At this year’s Sundance’s New Frontier program there were exhibitions of VR video games, shorts, and documentaries. One such doc was Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, a companion piece to the feature film (and a short) of the same name. The docs capture the audio recordings of John Hull, a British professor and theologian who abruptly went blind in the 1980’s. Hull used the recordings as a way of reflecting on his situation and reconciling with his loss of sight.

While it might seem contradictory to try and represent blindness in a visual medium, it seems VR might have the potential to represent the sensation more accurately. Into Darkness is getting its fair share of acclaim; one review called it “one of the most extraordinary digital experiences of these past years.”

These two components; film and VR animation, come together for an exciting new platform for storytelling. The Notes on Blindness multi-platform experience represents an exciting new frontier in both virtual reality and doc. With this and so many other VR projects slated for 2016, keep an eye on the DocX lineup.