Athena Film Festival 2018: Virtual Reality

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When virtual reality is happier than actual reality

Can virtual reality distract us from the actual reality of midterms? Bwogger Lucy Danger attended the Athena Film Festival’s first of two virtual reality experiences to find out. The Athena Film Festival is happening now through 2/25 at Barnard. Check our announcement post for some of the highlights, and look out for more Bwog reviews of various screenings and events. 

I know virtual reality was all the rage a few years ago, but I had never experienced it previous to this, so I didn’t really know what to expect. When I walked into Altschul Atrium where Athena volunteers were setting up, I saw a few people sitting on stools wearing futuristic-looking headsets and big headphones, from time to time looking around – basically what I imagine a Black Mirror casting to look like. “Am I going to look that aimless and out of it?” I wondered.

The event was going on from 12 to 5 pm, and all the equipment was in use when I arrived, so I signed a waiting list and decided which film to watch. They were offering four short documentary-style films: “Testimony,” “Under the Net,” “Look But With Love: A Story of Women,” and “Look But With Love: A Story of Dance.” I was able to watch all but Under the Net. Falling in line with Athena’s tenets, all the films featured women. They also seemed to come from somewhat of an activist perspective.

The volunteer sat me down on a stool and showed me how to work the device. The first one I used had a small remote control with a touchpad used to navigate directionally within the film. “It’s basically just holding a phone screen really close to your face,” she explained. “So how is it different from when I’m checking Twitter in the morning before I put my contacts in?” I thought to myself.

I saw “Look But With Love: A Story of Women” first, followed by “Look But With Love: A Story of Dance.” Both films are part of series featuring “extraordinary women in Pakistan actively working to change their communities.” A Story of Women follows Pakistani women training in anti-terrorism work in Nowshera. It was interesting, but kind of hard to get the full experience because of the remote control interface required. However, the documentary itself told a really cool and unique story, and I think it was more compelling as virtual reality.

“Look But With Love: A Story of Dance” was a slightly more seamless experience. This version of the headset didn’t require a remote, so I could just look around and see all 360º of the film. The narration was in Urdu, but there were English subtitles that appeared wherever I was looking. The story translated really well to the medium, featuring a woman who runs a children’s school for singing and dancing in Pakistan, where cultural norms have caused most people to not allow their children to participate in such activities. I could look around and see her students dancing all around the camera, and up to see the building and courtyard we were in.

Last, I watched “Testimony.” It features five survivors of sexual assault sharing their stories, with the goal of “inspir[ing] those who have been silenced to speak out, while building courage amongst survivors.” This one was less of a video and more of an interactive experience – like a website but without the clicking. As I looked around, I saw black and white circles with people’s faces in them, connected by black and white lines. I could look around and focus on any of the circles, and they would zoom in and the person in that bubble started telling their story. The connection between movement and video response was most seamless in this one, but because it didn’t really follow a plot line or traditional story path, it was kind of difficult for me to stay engaged the whole time.

Overall, Athena Film Festival provided me with a really cool first experience with virtual reality. I think the main limits were to do with the technology itself: the headsets were kind of heavy and not always perfectly focused. The films they chose to feature were very fitting choices for the Athena Film Fest: educational, with activist and awareness-raising sentiments, featuring the stories of women of diverse backgrounds in a really intriguing medium.

Athena is featuring one more virtual reality event with these films on Sunday 2/25 at 12:00 in Altschul Atrium. RSVP here!

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