Sundance Throws Parties IRL, Offers A Glimpse Into New Frontiers Of Virtual Reality In Film

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Written by Lauren DeLisa Coleman
Sundance
The parties go on all night at Sundance, one of the leading film festivals in the world for embracing filmmakers using VR, AR, and other new platforms. “Still Here” is the longest augmented reality piece ever produced. (PRNewsfoto/Al Jazeera Media Network)

Sundance is arguably one of the leading film festivals in the world for embracing filmmakers using new platforms. This year is no exception and a wealth of projects is being watched, demoed and discussed. 

The annual no-sleep festival is underway through Feb. 2 and will, no doubt, lead to just as many tales as deals at Sundance Film Festival 2020.

Themes around return, exploration and identity are very much front and center this year at the New Frontiers section of the festival and present truly astounding works for both the industry and general public. Whether you’re considering from a tech or content point of view, Sundance continues to push the envelope like no other.

Cutting-edge, independent and experimental creators are pushing the limits across biotech, facial recognition, mixed reality, underwater VR and much more. Their works from around the globe are on display in a variety of media installations, virtual reality cinema, panel discussions and networking events. 

There are 241 works in total with 35 percent directed or led by one or more Black artists or artists of color.

Some offerings are particularly notable. “BLKNWS” is a project by L.A.–based artist and filmmaker Kahlil Joseph that brings together art, journalism, and cultural critique using a newsreel format to reimagine traditional storytelling. This is a new take on news and views pertaining to people of color.

“Breathe” creates a storyline that unfolds in line with the viewer’s breathing pattern via bio-sensitive material extended from a device to the viewer.  This is an intriguing way to experience what the creators call “The Story of Air.” It’s narrated by actress Zazie Beetz, best known for her roles in Oscar-nominated “Joker” and “Deadpool 2.

“Persuasion Machines” is both a creative offering and commentary on smart livingrooms that ponders who’s in control — humans or the machines — and does so via a creative use of VR application.

Whereas virtual reality replaces your vision, augmented reality adds to it. AR devices like smart glasses are transparent, letting you see everything in front of you as if you are wearing a weak pair of sunglasses.

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However, it is “Still Here”, produced by the digital division of Al Jazeera Media Network, which is really a feat. The longest augmented reality piece ever produced — clocking in at 18 minutes — this work also includes an in-depth VR companion and explores a topic that is typically hidden: the rising statistics of incarcerated women, many of whom are Black. The project cites the fact that nearly 2.9 million women are incarcerated in the U.S. each year, and 80 percent are mothers. With lead creator Zahra Rasool, the company decided to create a piece that allows a viewer to explore the issues facing women upon re-integration to society.

“Still Here” takes it’s viewers through an AR version of Harlem, where the voice-overs of previously-incarcerated women explore a newly gentrified neighborhood from which they feel alienated. We see a perfect illustration of the growing wealth gap in America through the eyes of these women. 

Based on computer-generated imagery, this piece includes scripted dialog by noted writer Carvell Wallace. The interactive use of VR and AR technologies takes us into the experience of a real-life woman who, after 15 years in prison, grapples with erasure and the sentiment that brings. The work also gives voice to many of those who inhabit such situations but typically only express such feelings within the community. Widely exposed, these challenges should make for very rich dialogue and change.

As always, Sundance is a blur of intriguing films and provocative panels, but it’s also about private parties and invitation-only dinners coveted for their high-level networking offerings. These parties celebrate traditional theatrical releases — not just AR/VR-related.

“Charm City Kings”, a coming-of-age film about gangs in Baltimore featuring rapper Meek Mill and produced by Caleeb Pinkett, is being screened at the festival. A slick party for the film was held at Chase Sapphire House on Main Street, the primary drag of the Festival, until late into the morning.

The AT&T Warner Media Lodge is hosting star-studded talks with notables such as Tessa Thompson and Kelly Rowland, who appear in films that are being shown at the Festival.

The party thrown by powerful Hollywood agency UTA has been one of the most sought-after invitations so far. Held in a massive ski home high atop the mountains in the Deer Valley area of Park City, the party had the who’s who of the industry come through for a total of 800 people including Issa Rae’s team. All parties go well into the night with full bars, a killer DJ and views overlooking a breathtaking mountain scene.

The “Bad Hair” party at Chase Sapphire House was packed and high energy. The DJ spun back-to-back urban hits from the ’80s while guests sipped whiskey and champagne and danced into the night. “Bad Hair” is an eclectic horror film directed by Justin Simien and includes Lena Waithe, Vanessa Williams, Blair Underwood and Kelly Rowland. It’s a unique story about a meek woman whose weave is out for blood. Yes, you read right.

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR CHASE SAPPHIRE – Director Justin Simien, left, and actor Lena Waithe at the “Bad Hair” after party at Chase Sapphire on Main during the Sundance Film Festival 2020 on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision for Chase Sapphire)