DocX Roundup: VR and More at Hot Docs 2017

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In its second year, Hot Docs 2017’s DocX program celebrated “documentary work that lives outside of the traditional format.” This year’s program consisted of three special one-off live events, The Maribor UprisingsAfricville in Black and White, and The CANADALAND Guide to Canada, as well as nine VR films that were free and open to the public throughout the festival at a kiosk in Brookfield Place. Although the types of projects included were relatively limited in form (more on that later), there’s much to be said about their eclectic content and innovative approaches to their respective mediums.

After the success of Brothers in the Kitchen at Hot Docs 2016, Toronto multimedia artist Cyrus Sundar Singh presented Africville in Black and White, a similar—and totally sold-out—one-night-only live documentary and performance hybrid. Founded in the mid-18th century, Africville was a tight-knit community of African Nova Scotians on the outskirts of Halifax. In the 1960s, after years of locating undesirable entities like a dump, a prison, and an abattoir in the area, the city of Halifax declared Africville in need of redevelopment and began ordering expropriations and demolitions. Perhaps the most shameful act was the bulldozing, in the middle of the night, of the Seaview African United Baptist Church, the spiritual and social heart of the community since 1849. Through his choice of the historic First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Toronto as the venue for Africville in Black and White, Sundar Singh sought to recreate the demolished church in spirit. The support of members of the Africville community, including singer Shelly Hamilton, community leader Irvine Carvery, and others, lent the project additional authenticity and a sense of community endorsement. As in Brothers in the Kitchen, live testimony from community members took the place of what would be “talking head” interviews in a traditional doc, while live musicians and singers provided the soundtrack—including a performance by famed Canadian jazz pianist Joe Sealy, whose father was from Africville and who won a Juno award for his 1996 album, Africville Suite. A live video feed connected the Toronto crowd with members of the community at the Africville Museum in Halifax (housed in a replica of the destroyed church), some of whom also contributed as speakers. [Read more on Nova Scotia film in Atlantic Canada: the eastern edge of documentary.]

The content of the documentary took full advantage of the church setting and included several gospel songs led by Hamilton’s powerful voice, as well as audience participation throughout by way of call and response, clapping, and singing. Sundar Singh succeeded in establishing an ambience that was both participatory and lighthearted, while maintaining a respectful deference to the community members who were sharing their stories. Taking into consideration the number of participants, musicians, and technicians involved, the actual execution of the live event was astonishingly problem-free, and any minor stumbles (e.g. camera feed issues) were quickly worked through. Many people contributed to the success of the event (including three camerapeople in Toronto and one in Halifax, to name but a few), and there was substantial support in terms of equipment from Ryerson University (Sundar Singh graduated from Ryerson’s Documentary Media MFA program in 2016 and is now working on his doctorate there). Aside from the extended and out-of-place reggae number at its conclusion, Africville in Black and White was successful in giving the audience a profound and memorable experience that transcended the boundaries between concert, theatre, and documentary.

Promising the audience that they would “never look at Canada the same way again”, The CANADALAND Guide to Canada was another one-off live event at Hot Docs. Based in part on the book of the same name and hosted by Jesse Brown, creator of the popular CANADALAND podcast and news site, the book’s co-writers (Brown, Nick Zarzycki, and Vicky Mochama) took turns leading the audience through some of the less glorious (and at times, downright sordid), annals of Canadian history and culture. The hosts touched on topics like Leon Trotsky’s time in a Nova Scotia prison and the ridiculousness of the moose as a national symbol, while skewering national icons like Malcolm Gladwell, Marshall McLuhan, and of course, Justin Trudeau. Amid the satire was a sprinkling of gravitas, when, for instance, Brown took Stephen Harper to task for his hollow non-apology to First Nations.

Although billed as a “fact-filled stage show,” the event was, in reality, more of a “fact-filled slideshow,” an aesthetic not lost on the presenters, who were pointedly self-mocking about their TED-talk style. An off-putting mid-show plug (and coupon shill) for a boutique-clothing outfit was the low point of the event. However lovely their product and however accepted the practice is in podcasting, the advertisement felt decidedly inappropriate in a theatrical and ostensibly “documentary” context. Aside from that awkward moment, if the audience’s raucous laughter was any indication, most in attendance appreciated Brown’s bawdy humour and didn’t mind the minimal production value. In addition to the fairly packed house, the crowd’s demographics skewed notably young, which will not be forgotten by the festival’s programmers when pondering future line-ups. Although entertaining, in contrast with other live events like Brent Green and Sam Green: Live Cinema (DocX 2016) or this year’s Africville in Black and WhiteCANADALAND fell flat in terms of giving the audience the sensation that they were part of something fleeting and unique. Although hard to come by, this sensation is ultimately what unites good live documentaries (and other live events, for that matter).

On the virtual reality front, one interesting development is that more and more acclaimed directors of “traditional” documentaries are being drawn to VR as a medium. For example, the creative team behind Scenic, which describes itself as a “Virtual Reality content studio based in Brooklyn,” is stacked with heavy-hitters and Hot Docs alumni, including Gary Hustwit (HelveticaObjectified), Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (DetropiaNorman Lear: Just Another Version of You), Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone? and Bobby Fischer Against the World), Sam Green (The Weather UndergroundThe Measure of All Things), Jessica Edwards (Mavis!Seltzer Works), and Marshall Curry (If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation FrontStreet Fight), among others. Two of Scenic’s recent productions were featured in the DocX VR program: This is What the Future Looked Like (directed by Sam Green and Gary Hustwit), and The Fastest Ride (directed by Jessica Edwards). Homegrown VR talent was also well-represented at DocX this year, with two works by Montreal-based company Felix and Paul (The People’s House: Inside the White House with Barack and Michelle Obama and Dreams of ‘O’), two works from the amorphous Canada 150-funded SESQUI initiative (Polarman and A Tribe Called Red: Indian City 360°), and Welcome to Wacken by Toronto’s own Sam Dunn (Metal: A Headbanger’s JourneyRush: Beyond the Lighted Stage). Rounding out the offerings from DocX were Fistful of Stars (directed by Eliza McNitt) and Chasing Coral: The VR Experience (directed by Jeff Orlowski), the VR companion to a feature doc of the same name, which also premiered at the festival. (If you’re curious, some of these works are currently available for free online, including The Fastest Ride, a shortened version of The People’s House, and for those with the right device, Dreams of ‘O‘.)

These titles run the gamut from music videos to performance pieces, and into work that is akin to promotional content (whatever its merits as a documentary, The People’s House certainly has a controlled and tightly scripted PR feel to it). Toward the vérité end of the spectrum are Welcome to Wacken and The Fastest Ride. When looking at these nine films as a group, a tension that seems inherent to “documentary” VR emerges: the work that is the most engaging in terms of audio-visual experience tends to be lacking in narrative depth, while work that delivers on a narrative level tends to provide a less impressive audio-visual experience. It’s not unlikely that this tension will persist, but one of the things to watch for as the medium continues to evolve is whether VR doc makers will be able to achieve a greater harmony between the experiential possibilities of virtual reality and truly compelling narratives.

Clocking in at just under 30 minutes, Welcome to Wacken was by far the longest VR film at DocX 2017, and in some ways, the most elaborate. The experience opens with an introductory video composed of a series of rapid highlight shots and cut like a trailer. Unfortunately, this causes the viewer (or at least these viewers) to try and “see it all” and spin around rapidly, an action that can easily induce nausea (yes, there is already a term for this: “virtual reality sickness”). Following the intro, the viewer is placed in an animated 3D reconstruction of the famed grounds of Wacken Open Air, a heavy metal music festival held annually in northern Germany, which is commonly described as “Mecca for metalheads.” This 3D recreation serves as both map and navigation menu for the experience, which is divided into four chapters. Although there is a narrative progression of sorts from chapters I to IV, they basically function as stand-alone short films that follow different metalheads to Wacken, with each chapter’s protagonist coming from a different country. The story of Syrian-Canadian Rabih Shaar, a multi-year Wacken veteran, stands out, especially as he brings his cousin, who has recently fled Syria and is now a refugee in Germany, to the festival. The viewer is virtually present in the tent for the strange, yet somehow heartwarming moment, in which Rabih’s cousin undergoes her initiation into the festival family when Rabih pours a whole can of beer on her head.

Throughout the experience, the viewer is given the opportunity to observe the festival and its attendees, who are often aware of the camera and interact with it in mostly playful, sometimes antagonistic, but always interesting ways. Other sequences, like the circle of headbangers displaying their variety of styles, are clearly set up for the benefit of a 360° camera, but still manage to be engaging despite the artifice. Although Wacken VR does exhibit some of the weaknesses associated with the growing pains of VR documentary as a medium, its success lies in taking a setting that seems like a harsh and perhaps even hostile environment for outsiders, thrusting the viewer into the thick of it, and making it seem, in a word, awesome. The filmmaker’s genuine love for the people and the setting surely contributes to this feeling, as do the well-chosen subjects, excellent access, and (with the exception of the introduction) skilful editing. The final factor, however, is the strength of VR as a medium for generating empathy by removing the distance created by the fourth wall that is inherent in conventional film. Wacken VR demonstrates that, when done well, virtual reality can make viewers feel like they aren’t just seeing a place passively and at a safe distance, but that they are, in some small way, actually present.

VR is the current hot-ticket item on the festival circuit, so its preponderance in the DocX program was no surprise, but browser-based work was conspicuously absent from this year’s lineup despite the ongoing experimentation with documentary forms and technology in the online sphere. New projects like SBS’s My Grandmother’s Lingo (Australia) and the NFB’s The Space We Hold are just a few of the standouts from the past year. Although these types of projects will end up (or are already available) online, many people remain largely unaware of interactive documentaries, and festivals are an important venue for exposing them to new audiences. Regardless, the continuation of the DocX program, especially the inclusion of the special live events, bodes well for the future of non-traditional doc forms at Hot Docs and beyond.

For more coverage of the 2017 DocX program, read an in-depth piece on The Maribor Uprisings, a “live participatory film” about a series of citizen “uprisings” that led to the toppling of a municipal, and eventually, national, government in Slovenia.

Vist the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Marc Serpa Francoeur is a documentary filmmaker and interactive producer whose work builds on lifelong interests in immigration, diversity, and social justice issues. Co-founder of Lost Time Media with Robinder Uppal, they have produced a wide range of linear and interactive documentaries since 2013, including The World in Ten Blocks (2016), a feature-length interactive documentary that premiered at Hot Docs and Sheffield Doc/Fest and The Head in the Hand (2018), which was listed by DOC NYC as one of the top twelve contenders for the Oscars’ Documentary Short category. In 2020 they released No Visible Trauma, a scathing exposé of police brutality and accountability issues in Calgary, their hometown. They are in production on Love in the Time of Fentanyl, a feature-length documentary produced in partnership with ITVS and with the support of the Sundance Documentary Film Program.

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