'The grammar of cinema took decades to evolve... it was 20 or 30 years before somebody even thought to do a close-up, so we’re in the very early stages when it comes to thinking about the grammar of VR'
Virtual-reality pioneers Gabo Arora and Mohab Khattab were in Abu Dhabi last weekend, bringing their latest VR experience to a few lucky ticket holders at the Abu Dhabi Ideas Weekend. The show, Zikr: A Sufi Revival, is a 17-minute, immersive, 360-degree experience that takes participants to the heart of the Sufi experience, even allowing them to partake in an interactive Sufi ritual.
The film seemed to be well received by the select few who were able to see it – the show can only accommodate an “audience” of four at a time – with viewers dancing and swaying to the hypnotic rhythms and images unfolding on their headsets.
I ask executive producer Khattab why his production company, 1001 Media, chose the topic of Sufism for its latest venture into VR. “Part of our mission as a company is to try to humanise Arabs to the West and build bridges between our cultures,” he says. “We wanted to connect the western love of Sufi poets like Rumi and Hafez back to their inspirations, which were Islam and the Quran, to build bridges between East and West.”
Director Arora is of the same mindset. “I wanted to do something playful yet profound, and that’s not easy,” he says. “I was thinking about the ‘Muslim ban’ in the US and thought: ‘If more people understood that being Muslim is not just one monolithic thing, that there are loads of different things, including Sufism, maybe they’d understand better.’”
Arora adds that Sufism lends itself well to the platform. “VR is experiential and Sufism is experiential, and I figured this technology could make people understand what Sufism is, which you can’t do through books or a traditional documentary. With VR, we can actually bring you into the ritual and have the same feeling as you would have when you’re there, interacting as well as seeing interviews.”
The project had its debut at Sundance in January, and had the rare honour, for a VR film, of gaining international distribution at the film festival. Zikr has already been installed at a number of museums and film festivals, with talks for more taking place, but Arora admits that the film’s exclusive nature, and VR movies in general, makes reaching wide audiences a challenge. “We’re currently trying to demonstrate the viability of return on investment because you can only get four people in at a time,” he says. “We recently put an installation in LA, and that sold out for four months solid and more than made its money back.
“Looking ahead, though, we’re building an online platform where people can network into it online from wherever they are. Right now, you need a gaming computer and graphics cards and technology, so we’re limited in who can access it, but technology is moving fast and the day is coming when people will have headsets and equipment at home. Then there’ll be a huge market, and we’re aiming to be ahead of the curve on that.”
Developing a VR project
Access to the technology may be one of the main hurdles currently facing VR, but Khattab says filmmakers shouldn’t get too wrapped up in the technology. “When I first got involved with VR I got really excited,” he says. “I set a gaming room up with sensors in my living room, much to wife’s distress, and was really excited for a while, but it was all about the effects and the novelty. I got bored after that wore off, and hung up my headset.”
As with any film, Khattab says, the story is key: “Without a story, you don’t keep the audience, and the technology is not the story. I do see a lot of people working in VR who are all about the technology, and that’s going to kill VR if there is no story. That’s why I was so supportive of this project – it’s when people empathise that they get hooked, not when they see impressive special effects.”
Arora agrees that just because the technology is there, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should use it. “The number one question to ask is: ‘Why VR?’” he says. “Because it’s more experiential, it’s a lot harder to relay information like you would in traditional media. The grammar of cinema took decades to evolve. If you think about things we take for granted now, I think it was 20 or 30 years before somebody even thought to do a close-up, so we’re in the very early stages when it comes to thinking about the grammar of VR.
You have to think: ‘Where could VR take me that I couldn’t go another way? Where can it provide me access to something that’s interesting that I wouldn’t normally have?’ You’re able to provide the feeling of a total sense of being there in that experience, total empathy, and that can make people very emotional.”
The future of VR
Arora admits that he still has respect for “flatties” [his term for 2-D media], but as technology develops, he thinks that VR will be “the dominant art form of the 21st century”.
For Khattab, there is one other key factor about Zikr that appeals to audiences – the movie’s subversiveness. “It’s a very subversive film. Not politically, but in that you drop your barriers and become more accepting,” he says. “These walls that people are building, literally in the US, they come down and people are dancing and saying: ‘I get this.’ That was the most interesting thing.”
Khattab found that sense of acceptance at the movie’s Abu Dhabi screenings and everywhere else it has shown since Sundance.
“We had guys in robes and women in abayas just dancing around – they wouldn’t do that without the headset,” he says. “They weren’t paying attention to me or anyone else, because they were just there, not thinking about anything else. Being able to bring down barriers like that is something really subversive, and really amazing, too.”