I am in Greenland's tundra and a man beside me explains how this land’s glaciers are quickly melting. I look around at the craggy rocks, arctic water, and it looks very nearly real. But the man himself seems to have a weird blocky membrane enveloping his body, as video game characters do. His shirt has the glitchy aberrations—patches of shirt and skin that shift color, flicker—that you’ll recognize from sci-fi movie holograms. And maybe because I’m a VR newbie, it’s getting tough to pay attention to the narration about the plight of Greenland’s glaciers.
The 44th Seattle International Film Fest starts tomorrow and as part of its huge list of films, organizers have included the SIFF VR Zone—the former BCBG store in Pacific Place, now adorned with some dark curtains and generous splashes of pink light. Nonmembers pay $25 for 90 minutes in a long room full of swiveling office chairs and headsets, each of which contains one of the nearly 30 virtual reality films available.
After “Greenland Melting,” I also checked out “Let This Be a Warning,” a Kenyan film which plunks the viewer down as an unwanted guest on a different planet colonized by Africans. My favorite, though, was “The Journey” a photo-realistic documentary telling the stories of three Africans: one struggling to find food and water in Ethiopia, another trying to get an education in South Sudan, and the last living with HIV in Chad.
Sure, this form of storytelling is still a novelty—you can’t help but glance down and see that you don’t have legs, and background noise from the environment seep easily past headphones—and that distracted me again from the narration a few times. Nevertheless, while “The Journey” is not new documentarian ground, narratively, the visual immersion makes it feel that way. That you can look around as the camera pushes through a village or that you’re in the doctor’s office with a woman as she goes through an HIV check-up—just that virtual presence—made "The Journey" more affecting than most feature documentaries I’ve seen lately. And it achieves that in 10 minutes.