Virtual reality (VR) is on its way. Although still in an embryonic stage, with its oversized headsets, bulky touch-responsive gloves and an unresolved relationship to physical space, this emerging technology, which provides a direct experience of simulated reality, will no doubt change human life in countless ways – from film to design to education to the ways in which we explore and satisfy human desires – and in many other ways that have still to be imagined. For now, however, film – and the overlapping area of gaming – is one of the key outposts of this largely unknown and constantly expanding frontier.
Documentary and interactive media expert Ingrid Kopp, who co-produced the four VR titles that will be showcased in Durban, points out that the language of film is not necessarily the language in which we should be talking when it comes to VR. At the same time, as the selection of African VR titles at this year's Durban FilmMart demonstrates, VR can fulfil two of the central promises of cinema – to show us things that we've never seen before, and provide new perspectives on everyday life. And while it's unlikely that VR will ever replace traditional cinema as a medium, it will undoubtedly compete with it, just as gaming and music and books and social media do now, and it seems likely that it will come to shape the ways that we build and relate to moving images in general.
The multiplied gaze
VR is particularly well-suited to breaking down the singular perspective that is at the root of so much Western art production – with VR, the gaze changes and multiplies in multiple ways, and everything shifts as a result.
In the Kenyan production Let This Be A Warning, from The Nest Collective, a group of African people have left Earth to create a colony on a distant planet, and respond with disquiet when an uninvited and unwelcome guest arrives. Like virtually all sci-fi, Let This Be a Warning is also very much about the present moment and contemporary visions of race, empire and identity.
But by placing the viewer directly into the narrative, the viewer becomes the protagonist and the sense of exclusion becomes far more visceral than we would usually experience it in the flat two-dimensional space of traditional media.
This is one of the key gifts of VR film making – the ability to experience someone else's subjective reality. This first-person point of view is a Holy Grail of film making that has never been convincingly realised in traditional film, precisely because there is no real sense of fluid agency. But as Let This Be a Warning shows, the simple ability to shift your visual perspective, to look around you, changes everything.
In someone else's dreams
While Let This Be a Warning achieves a sense of experientiality from an external narrative perspective, Nairobi Berries, Ng'endo Mukii's otherworldly symphony for Kenya's capital city, allows for a more interior experience. The result is something close to experiencing other people's dreams as our own – although the film is not presented as a dream but as a poetic allegory.
Spirit Robot from Ghana's Jonathan Dotse is the most straightforward of the four titles, providing a virtual documentary that explores the Chale Wote Street Art Festival in Accra. Although lacking the digital interventions of the other three films, the film is exciting precisely because it allows us to experience another physical reality from the comfort (or discomfort) of wherever we are.
Even if you're familiar with VR narratives, The Other Dakar, from Senegal's Selly Raby Kane, will be like nothing you've ever seen before. It creates a world that comprises equal parts narrative solidity and dreamlike ephemerality, as a little girl discovers an invisible Dakar that sits beneath the surface of reality. Beautifully realised, the reality it creates feels both digital and physical at the same time.
Perhaps VR is so closely aligned to cinema in these early days because cinema has been telling prophetic stories about the future for so long. And in the same ways that we look back to the early days of film with a sense of nostalgia, these early experiments in the form, structure and content of VR will one day – probably quite soon – look just as quaint, naive and anachronously beautiful as the early silent short films.
But for now, they are exciting harbingers of a new world that is coming our way soon.