The 2021 Sundance Film Festival’s (Virtual) New Frontier

Movies Features Sundance 2021
The 2021 Sundance Film Festival’s (Virtual) New Frontier

This year’s Sundance Film Festival going virtual has no doubt been a godsend for accessibility. Countless world class films, previously confined to snowy Park City, are temporarily made available to anyone in the country, anywhere, including my cramped apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. Despite the lack of a centralized on-site venue for New Frontier, the festival’s annual virtual reality and new media showcase, the Sundance Institute overhauled their interface in order to support a platform perfectly suited for innovative works at the intersection of moving image and burgeoning technology. One of the perks of being awarded this year’s Press Inclusion Initiative fellowship—aside from a standard press pass and bragging rights (of which I am eternally grateful!)—is receiving a complimentary Oculus Quest 2 VR headset. A week before the festival started, I received a brand-new Oculus in the mail like it was a tipsy late-night online shopping purchase. When the initial high of being told I was receiving a flashy new toy for free finally dissipated, I was immediately reminded of a long-held personal truth: I’m not, nor will I ever be, a gamer.

What really freaked me out about the Oculus’ VR offerings was the idea of being completely submerged in gameplay, flanked on all sides by the stimulation of a virtual world. As someone who is routinely ridiculed for my poor motor skills on this mortal coil and beyond it, I assumed there was no way in hell I’d be able to master this specific blend of simulated experience and corporeal reality. To prove my point: As a kid, my younger siblings would only allow me to play the inconsequential minigames in Crash Bandicoot and Spyro, their logic being that giving me command of the controller during high-stakes missions would only plummet their coveted high scores. This reputation follows me even into adulthood; I have been unceremoniously booted off of my friend’s computer while playing Grand Theft Auto V more times than I can count. His stupefied face at my inability to complete the most rudimentary of missions will surely be ingrained in my psyche as long as I live.

Well, it turns out I managed to prove myself (and everyone else, mind you) wrong. The virtual offerings in this year’s New Frontier section are some of the most revelatory experiences I had during the festival. While I initially expected an overwhelming slant towards VR experiences, there was plenty to explore in a variety of mediums. Smartphone apps, live performances and immersive virtual art installations were also represented within the slate.

The entire catalogue is only accessible through Sundance’s own online platform (built specifically for this year’s virtual iteration), which inserted festivalgoers into the New Frontier Gallery as avatars with multicolor stick-figure bodies, only distinguishable through selfies and display names hovering atop virtual shoulders. Using my laptop’s arrow keys, I galivanted through the online gallery space, which mimics a real-life art gallery in every way you might anticipate. Images line otherwise spare, white walls; by approaching these images, one can read more about the artist and what the piece entails. However, the images aren’t static—they are direct gateways for experiencing these projects.

The gallery experience is similar in the Oculus, with the user instructed to use the trigger keys on the controllers (which act as your hands and are distinguished by left and right), an action that is sort of clunky and never quite works right on the first try. As previously stated, my anatomy is not conducive to game controllers and joysticks, so the awkwardness could very well be due to my own incompetence. But what I did experience in the Oculus was visually stunning, often engrossing me in a story so completely that I routinely dropped my controllers or nearly fell off the edge of my bed.

The first New Frontier offering that I experienced was Space Explorer: The ISS Experience. If you’ve ever been curious about the sheer magnitude of life in outer space, this TIME-produced immersive documentary might very well be the closest you can get here on Earth. Astronauts David Saint-Jacques, Anne McClain, Nick Hague and Christina H. Koch filmed their experiences aboard the International Space Station using custom-built VR cameras, which adds the uncanny sensation of the viewer seemingly floating alongside their NASA guides, hovering at arm’s-length while the crew exercise, talk about their lives back home and levitate effortlessly while conducting complex tasks that most of us would fumble through with two feet firmly on the ground.

There are brief points where I felt nauseated or otherwise uncomfortable, particularly when I moved to survey my surroundings in 360 degrees. The sensation of floating through space while my senses were intentionally dulled was exhilarating, but eventually became exhausting. The translation of physical sensation from documentary subject to viewer is an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to fostering understanding, but can also project the subject’s experiences so effortlessly onto the viewer that it can’t help but feel manipulative.

Conversely, VR’s ability to encourage projection is best utilized when encapsulated in narrative form. 4 Feet High VR, a narrative series containing six consecutive six-minute episodes, follows protagonist Juana, a 17-year-old wheelchair user living in metropolitan Argentina. Like most teenagers, Juana wishes to explore the nuances of her own sexuality, a narrative throughline which ultimately fosters a larger discussion concerning Argentina’s patriarchal legislature—which condemns the teaching of comprehensive sex education in schools and (until recently) prohibited legal access to abortions. Through a compelling mash-up of live-action and animation, the viewer is so successfully immersed in Juana’s daily life that it feels as if you are a de-facto character hanging outs with her friends, attending pro-abortion demonstrations and dancing wildly to the pulsing beat of a live concert. At one point, my heart raced when the cap of a soda bottle seemingly pointed in my direction during a game of spin the bottle; I only exhaled a sigh of relief after realizing that Juana was actually sitting right behind me.

Illuminated doodles surround Juana and her friends during certain scenes, giving the series a certain fantastical embellishment while never straying too far from the aesthetic of colorful gel-pen notes passed between best friends during class.

Directed by María Belén Poncio and conceived in large part by Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, a filmmaker and disability rights activist, 4 Feet High is a welcome anecdote for the nihilism inherent in contemporary sexy teen dramas like Euphoria. There is little voyeuristic dwelling on the struggles Juana faces as a wheelchair user, instead opting to provide a narrative that prioritizes the innate beauty and joy experienced by the teenage girl, leaving the viewer teary-eyed and reluctant to leave her side.

A shorter but similarly emotional Oculus experience is Erick Oh’s Namoo, an animated short film that follows one man from the moment of his birth to the end of his life—all in a concise 11 minutes. The title comes from the word “tree” in Korean, the meaning of which is evident in the visual metaphor of a seedling that grows into a towering tree alongside the man, holding memories that amass in significance and emotional heft as he progresses through life. The film contains no dialogue, opting to have the viewer concentrate on the often image-based nature of memory. There is a scene where the now-old man ascends towards the heavens via oversized balloon which, coupled with the memory of a female companion who abruptly exits the picture, screams Up. Oh’s history as a Pixar animator jumps out, but the engrossing visual medium saves it from immediately drawing overt comparison.

Straddling the line of virtual immersion and at-home gameplay, Fortune! projects a five-minute 3D animated story narrated by Frank Bourassa, allegedly the world’s greatest counterfeiter. After first cleaning off my bedside table, I was able to project a Boteroesque Bourassa into my bedroom, where he recounts the tale of his counterfeiting operation and what he learned about systemic economic inequality from the experience. While there is speculation that Bourassa counterfeited much more money than he ever let on, Fortune!’s function isn’t as a documentary or history lesson, existing largely to upset previously held notions of money as anything other than a social construct.

Another piece that gloriously interrupts widely-held conceits is Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran, a play performed via YouTube Live. Conceived by Kirsty Housley and Javaad Alipoor (who stars/narrates), the play instructs audience members to participate by utilizing Instagram Live at points during the performance, rebuking the silent clause of theatergoing in order to foster greater interaction with the audience. Originally created for the stage, Rich Kids pivoted to an online experience during the pandemic so successfully that it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate venue for the play. Initially framed around the deaths of Iranian high society members Mohammad Hossein Rabbani-Shirazi and influencer Parivash Akbarzadeh after losing control of their ostentatious yellow Porsche in 2015, Rich Kids unravels the complex and far-reaching histories of colonization, human consumption and festering inequality to contextualize the unique effect of Western imperialism on climate change, destabilized populations and, yes, shopping malls in Tehran.

Due to my initial misunderstanding that New Frontier experiences operate under the same restrictions as Sundance’s film offerings (you have a four-hour window to watch a title once it is made available to view), I only ended up catching the last act of Rich Kids. What I saw, though, satiated the part of my brain that relishes in the mix of archival footage, news reels and narration indicative of an Adam Curtis film. While I missed out on prompts for interacting through Instagram Live, I was quickly able to catch up on the narrative—and even managed to learn something wholly new and disturbing (please look up the “Orbis Spike” if you’ve never heard of it).

A performance that would have been a cacophonous playground for fellow queer folks during non-COVID times is Weirdo Night, a music/performance art/drag show hosted by legacy performance artist Dynasty Handbag. Instead of corralling viewers into a strict time slot for the performance, a pre-recorded version of the show directed by Mariah Garnett is hosted on Vimeo, ready to go whenever a viewer deems themselves ready for the experience. While I crave the ability to be in the audience—whooping wildly during Blasia Discoteca’s lip sync and fangirling over appearances from Vagabon and SASAMI with my closest friends—Weirdo Night is equal parts charming and hilarious, a much-needed presence of flesh-and-blood queer community when one of the only other alternatives at the festival is yet another white lesbian period drama.

For someone who routinely daydreams about the pre-pandemic bygone of going to bars with friends, do {not} play is both an unexpected delight and a stinging reminder of what I currently can’t have. Powered by IDFA DocLab—the Amsterdam-based documentary film festival and marketplace—the interactive space comes as close as virtually possible to simulating a night at the bar, complete with washrooms which project your face via webcam onto a mirror over the sink, where you can cleanse your computer-generated mitts to remain hygienic. There is a café and restaurant for socializing with strangers or for setting a designated virtual meet-up spot among friends at the festival, neither of which I used properly, but the absolute highlight of this space are the private karaoke rooms with intimate capacity limits. Alone in a wood-paneled booth and equipped with a virtual microphone, I gently began singing Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” slowly but surely raising my voice as the new wave anthem inevitably took me over. I can now say that I’ve done karaoke, a considerable feat for someone with unshakable stage fright.

Equally cemented in incorporating music and other sonic landscapes for the purpose of interpreting human emotion is Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler, an interactive WebXR experience for browsers. Featuring Black artists across mediums interpreting the work of storied science fiction writer Octavia Butler, the platform is itself a host for five distinct installations created by each collaborator. Stand-out contributions for me are filmmaker Terence Nance’s mock radio show, featuring fictional interviews concerning an upcoming Butler film adaptation interspersed with dreamy beats from Flying Lotus; Idris Brewster’s music-laden roaming game Quantum Summer and Sophia Nahlia Allison’s short film Pluto. A hybrid art gallery/interactive installation, Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler is perhaps the most emblematic of what New Frontier stands for: Highlighting the work of artists unwilling to confine themselves within comfortable limits of narrative moving image, instead opting to communicate more thoughtfully through rigorously constructing new mediums altogether.

Existing narrative structure is also eschewed in Stephanie Dinkins’ Secret Garden, evident in Dinkins’ involvement in Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler. Like her Interstitium piece, Secret Garden allows the viewer to move through a space in order to seek out a particular voice amid an atmosphere of competing voices—the player only able to distinguish who is saying what by approaching a single digitally-rendered narrator whose anecdote can then be clearly listened to. It is engrossing to a point of near-frustration, as ambling through the computerized foliage easily leads one to accidentally roam in circles (only able to hear the same stories from the same faces), meanwhile distinctly hearing a faint sliver of an unheard story in a far-flung corner of digital space. This is likely the lesson ingrained in Secret Garden: The experiences of Black women go perpetually unheard, in large part due to a hostile and violent history hell-bent on suppressing and silencing at all costs. The vague, indistinct voices we hear just off-screen serve as a maddening reminder of the plethora of stories lost to the annals of time—imploring us to uplift these voices right now.

There are a handful of New Frontier programs which I didn’t experience, either due to an inadequate graphics card, RAM or incompatibility with non-Windows software (Prison X- Chapter 1: The Devil and the Sun, To Miss the Ending, The Changing Same: Episode 1 and Nightsss), as well sold out showtimes (Tinker), missed performances (7 Sounds VR) and multiplayer formats I deemed too intimidating (Beyond the Breakdown). When considering the additional 24 films I caught during the weeklong festival, I’m at peace with the way I navigated my very first Sundance; in an alternate reality where I both manage to receive the Press Inclusion Initiative grant and have the budget to indulge in all the amenities that Park City has to offer, I’m not sure that I would have been able to effectively condense my schedule to optimize non-stop viewing and interaction.

In this alternate reality, I might also be forced to step out of my comfort zone, to submit myself to the mortifying ordeal of introducing myself, making small talk and using alcohol as an appropriate crutch to enable socializing. As I prepare myself for the possibility of having to engage in this anxiety-inducing networking spectacle a year from now, I’m comforted by the fact that the frontier of my audiovisual engagement has been adequately broadened through this year’s virtual experience. At the very least, I won’t hesitate delving into the latest in VR with my newly acquired Oculus—and, hey, maybe I’ll finally play a game of Mario Kart while I’m at it.

Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.

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