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Exploring Venice Film Festival's Virtual Reality arm with Gayatri Parameswaran

Ahmaied Hamad Khalaf in his home in Fallujah, with Gayatri Parameswaran   | Photo Credit: Felix Gaedtke

Early this year, The New York Times released Caliphate, a podcast series chronicling the story of a young Canadian man who confesses to joining (and then leaving) the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Rukmini Callimachi, the journalist covering ISIS for the newspaper, admitted that the podcast medium allowed for a richer story than what print would have permitted. The rustling of papers, the sound of the protagonist scratching his beard as he confesses to perpetrating torture — all of it provided valuable perspective, she said in an interview with Longform.org.

For filmmakers Gayatri Parameswaran and Felix Gaedtke of Berlin-based NowHere Media, virtual reality (VR) projects offer similar experiential insight. “War does not end when the fighting stops,” says Gaedtke, who produced the VR film Home After War, Returning to Fear in Fallujah, which premièred this week in the Virtual Reality arm of the Venice Film Festival. Directed by Parameswaran, the film, which is set up as an installation, allows audience members to explore the home of Ahmaied Hamad Khalaf, an Iraqi man who returned to his hometown of Fallujah after ISIS was defeated. The interactive experience provides insight into the local community’s fear of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), responsible for the death of thousands of civilians in the region, including two of Khalaf’s sons.

Also at Venice VR
  • Spheres (USA): This three-part series produced by Darren Aronofsky (Mother!, Black Swan) is the most-talked about production from Venice VR, not just in part because it landed a seven figure distribution deal at Sundance. The series explores the songs and sounds of the cosmos, and the final instalment, Chorus of the Cosmos, will feature Millie Bobby Brown (of Stranger Things fame) as narrator.
  • The Unknown Patient (Australia): Based on a true story, this interactive experience allows users to step into the mind of a WWI soldier with no memory of his life before the war. Living in a mental asylum and afflicted by extreme PTSD, he navigates his memories and flashbacks to piece together his identity.
  • X-Ray Fashion (US, Denmark, India): Aimed at increasing awareness about the fashion industry’s status as a leading polluter, this film portrays the lifecycle of a garment — right from production to eventual disposal. Narrated in the voice of a Bangladeshi garment manufacturer, the film lets players stand on different objects and elements — earth, water and clothes — to provide an immersive feeling.
  • Borderline (Israel): The story of Abraham, a young Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldier of Ethiopian origin, who, while guarding the border in the desert, has to make a difficult decision when left alone. The audience is invited to explore the soldier’s uncertainty

Reality check

2018 marks the second year of the Venice Film Festival’s VR showcase, curated by industry pioneers Michel Reilhac and Liz Rosenthal, and housed on an abandoned island in the Venetian lagoon. With 30 films in competition (of which Home After War is one), the festival will feature installation set ups for some of the participating films as well as a virtual reality theatre with revolving leather seats. “Our installation will provide the physical impulse of the booby trap explosion that killed Ahmaied’s sons,” explains Parameswaran. “We are going to use scent and heat, and the floor will shake when the explosion happens. One of the strengths of VR is its ability to create empathy, making it actually possible to put you in someone else’s shoes. You can experience Ahmaied’s loss as he tells you his emotional connection to his sons and how he misses them.”

Home After War is an Oculus VR for Good project, an initiative by the Facebook-owned company that matched ten filmmakers with non-profit organisations, providing funding and resources to create social impact films. Gaedtke and Parameswaran were paired with the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining. “We knew that we wanted to work on the issue of booby traps, which is very specific to Iraq and Syria,” shares Gaedtke. “We were initially planning to go to Mosul, but when the Kurdish referendum happened, there weren’t any flights, so we changed our plans and went to Fallujah.”

In January, the husband and wife duo spent two weeks in Fallujah, capturing 360° footage of Khalaf’s home, and using photogrammetry (taking hundreds of photographs of the room to recreate the environment) to allow audience members to move around and experience the house. The third technique was stereo billboarding — where Khalaf was placed in front of a green screen and was filmed with two stereo cameras rigged at the audience’s eye level to provide two separate videos and therefore, greater detail. Back in Berlin, post-production work was done with a team of developers and programmers using gaming software. “The film is designed more like a game in terms of defining the logic of what happens when a player does something, which meant that we had to do a lot of bug fixing with the logic,” explains Parameswaran. “This took a lot of time.”

Parameswaran (left) and Gaedtke

Parameswaran (left) and Gaedtke   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Stand in my shoes

Parameswaran, who grew up in Mumbai, met Gaedtke in 2009 when both started their Master’s in journalism in Denmark. “We wrote our thesis about the same place, Myanmar, and we knew we wanted to tell similar kinds of stories — human rights, sexual rights, the environment,” shares the filmmaker. With experience in documentary filmmaking, they were was drawn to the lack of rules and endless possibility in VR. Their company, NowHere Media, which was established in 2014, is the creator of projects like Kya Yahi Pyar Hai? (Is This Love?), India’s first 360°/VR experience about intimate partner violence, created in partnership with the nonprofit Love Matters India. By playing the role of a woman in an abusive relationship, the user is provided with cues to understand the difference between abuse and love. “The main goal of the film was to communicate that the signs of abuse are not always easily recognisable, especially in the beginning,” explains Parameswaran.

The duo, currently working on a project about poverty among children in Berlin, is also hoping to launch an augmented reality (AR) project to raise awareness about sexual education in Indian schools.

Home After War, Returning to Fear in Fallujah will be on at the Venice Film Festival till September 8. Details: labiennale.org

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 5:01:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/virtual-reality-at-venice-film-festival/article24830950.ece

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