Navigating Alternate Realities at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2017

Starting this Friday and running until 14 June, the Alternate Realities programme at Sheffield Doc/Fest features a great selection of talks and projects from the interactive and immersive documentary field.

The majority of the talks this year are part of the Alternate Realities summit which kicks off on Sunday. A day curated by digital creative Dan Tucker and hosted by May Abdalla and Amy Rose of Anagram, an award-winning creative collective who make immersive experiences. The morning sessions focus on ‘Reflections’, which includes a panel on agency in documentary – examining the role of the audience with insights from panel members including David Oppenheim (National Film Board of Canada, Producer The Space We Hold) and Vassiliki Khonsari (Ink Stories, Creator Blindfold).

The afternoon sessions shift gear and turn focus to ‘Togetherness’ examining how technology in interactive and immersive documentaries can be a uniting force for good. Darren Emerson (VR City / East City Films) and Ali Eslami (Artist, Creator DeathTolls Experience) are on a panel exploring the political power of these kind of stories, chaired by VR director and journalist Charlotte Mikkelborg.

Throughout the whole day, Anagram are breaking up the talks with short interventions, generating a collectively-constructed portrait of the audience’s digital selves.

DeathTolls Experience

DeathTolls Experience

The Alternate Realities exhibition this year has more VR in the programme than ever before, with  experiences on show at the Millennium Gallery, as well as two new pop-up venues – the VR Portal on Tudor Square and the VR Campfire at Upper Chapel.

Unrest VR, which was part of the Tribeca Storyscapes line-up earlier this year, has its UK premiere at Sheffield as part of the Immersive VR section. The project gives insight into an invisible and often overlooked illness, ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) inspired by the experiences of director Jennifer Brea.

Another piece in the Immersive VR section is  ‘DeathTolls Experience‘, winner of the 2016 IDFA DocLab Immersive Non-Fiction Award. Created by Iranian computer artist Ali Eslami, the project uses virtual reality to visualise the data behind large-scale human tragedies. Eslami’s statement on the piece expands on this: “What I tried to achieve with this project is enhancing the perception of this data, because I think it’s necessary to be aware of our surroundings and actions. It somehow shows a visual model of huge numbers, like 120,000 civilian death toll in Syria, that gives the user a vision to eventually have a more accurate idea of the numbers he/she hears next time in the news. I have the passion for creating something that can lead to a better awareness of our surrounding and push away the interfaces that disconnect us from our own actions in this Reality. What makes me excited about it is the potential impact on the people who try it.”

Anyone can go and check out these projects, as entrance to the Immersive VR space in Millennium Gallery is free! However note that on-the-day booking is required.

My Grandmother's Lingo

My Grandmother’s Lingo

Looking beyond VR, web-based interactive documentaries this year include the beautifully illustrated ‘My Grandmother’s Lingo‘, an SBS production that explores the plight of Australia’s indigenous languages, 90% of which are critically endangered. Ahead of Sheffield, check out this interview with Angelina Joshua, the woman who inspired the project.

Also sitting in the Interactive section of the Alternate Realities exhibition is The World in Ten Blocks. Produced in partnership with the Globe and Mail, the project explores the stories of immigrant entrepreneurs in the Toronto Bloorcourt neighbourhood. You can find out more about the making of the project in this recent interview with the creators.

Another project that caught my eye is ‘Borders‘, a political art game that shows the dangers immigrants face attempting to cross the Mexican/US border. The game was originally created in a seven-day-long gamejam with two first time game developers, Gonzalo Alvarez and Jon DiGiacomo, plus one veteran developer, Genaro Vallejo Reyes. Even if you aren’t heading to Sheffield, you can download a copy of the game here on a pay what you feel basis.

There’s so much more on this year which isn’t mentioned here! The Alternate Realities Commission ‘Future Aleppo‘, Navid and Vassiliki Khonsari’s latest project ‘Blindfold‘ and a psychedelic mediation on life and death. Can’t wait for all this? Read up on Jessica Brillhart’s guest post about the Google Voyager VR project ahead of her talk at the Summit.