Cutting edge: CIFF doubles down on virtual reality

As the 41st Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF) prepares to screen 522 foreign and independent films from 71 countries across the globe, it’s also readying to expand parts of its programming to make room for another major cast member.

Following the trendy actions of other festivals this year such as Sundance and SXSW, the perennially popular film showcase in Cleveland is offering its free Perspectives virtual reality (VR) films for 2017 CIFF’s full run — March 30 through April 9. This is a significant expansion over last year's four-day event. For the uninitiated, the VR experience includes donning a headset that projects the film for that viewer only, who then can move any which way and see what's going on anywhere within the virtual 3D world around them.
Mallory Martin, current director of programming for CIFF, says the move will give festivalgoers more opportunities with the edgy VR experience at a prescient time for a technology still struggling to find its place in Hollywood.

“There’s been a lot of good questions about this new world,” says Martin, who works alongside Bill Guentzler, CIFF’s artistic director to select each year’s 200-plus features and shorts. “We’re asking, ‘Will it last? Is it a trend? Is it really something film festivals should be paying attention to?’" she muses. "Me, I really think it’s only going to stay and evolve.”
As for the film industry at large, however, the answer is a definitive 'maybe.'
These days, the VR approach to artistic expression is at a two-point crossroad: is this a serious film tool or mere gimmick? Stephen Spielberg, though cautious about the technology’s “dangerous” affect on artistry, has opted to use VR on his latest family-oriented project, while James Cameron has one word regarding VR: yawn. IMAX had its own VR-related panel at SXSW, while the company is in the process of launching “location-based" VR venues around the U.S. And Patrick Osborne's Pearl, the father-and-daughter tearjerker, was the first VR film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Short. (For curious locals, Pearl will be one of the VR films featured in Perspectives this year.)

Pearl will be one of the VR films featured in Perspectives this year
This coming-of-age step for VR — and its video-game friendly cousin Augmented Reality — is why Martin, who studied filmmaking at Ohio University before shifting to marketing, is so excited about its popularity. Along with offering a total of 14 VR films amid the 2017 Perspectives programming; which includes selections such as a plumber’s tale chronicling the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquakes, a deep space meditation on black holes colliding and a journey through the last minutes of a man's life; Martin believes that this year's CIFF virtual reality uptick will spark local filmmakers’ imaginations and encourage them to test this developing (and admittedly very costly) technology. She’s also reached beyond the local film community, inviting 6,000 high and middle school students “just to get them in the space.”
Though VR is guaranteed to be a substantial part of CIFF this year, its juxtaposition with traditional film has some critics turning down their thumbs. For one, communal movie going is traded out for individualized headset wearing. From the production side, directors don't commandeer the cameras, and therefore have no control over what the audience opts to watch. In repurposing Spielburg’s Jaws to a VR experience, for instance, a viewer might decide to hang out on the deck of the Orca instead of training her eyes on the monstrous shark (a.k.a. Bruce).
Still, Martin is certain that the criticisms of VR are on account of its status as an emerging technology. She asserts that this viewer-based experience will never replace the cinematic leaps found in Indiana Jones or Avatar. Rather, CIFF’s exhibition could help, in theory, create a whole new VR film frontier altogether, even boosting it to a national level.
“This is just way-more active viewing,” Martin says, “which is the major difference from passive ‘just going to the movies' [storytelling]. Audiences themselves can be a part of the story. A lot of the panels on VR that I’ve been to use one word to describe this — and that word is empathy.”
Along with Pearl’s VR evangelist and director Osborne, many VR backers tinkering with the genre are sparked by the notion that immersive storytelling — that is, feeling like you’re actually in that Syrian village listening to a 12-year-old refugee as opposed to just watching the scene — profoundly affects human emotion, much more than traditional film. The CEO of VR tech company Within, Chris Milk, in a 2015 TED Talk, went as far to label it “the ultimate empathy machine.”
This concept, notes Martin, makes something like this year's Perspectives program worthwhile to newcomers and film vets alike. Maybe, she adds, CIFF could spotlight a Cleveland VR convert in a future season. After all, there are many breakthroughs to be had when festivals are given space to bloom freely.
“You have to stay relevant as a film festival,” she says. “You need to connect and pay attention to how people consume media. This said, I think the VR world is very indicative of how we are going to advance in the future — meaning being immersive, rather than just sitting on your couch and watching Netflix.”
The Perspectives salon will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., March 30 through April 8, and April 9 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., at Tower City Level M2. It is free and open to the public, although attendees must be at least 13 years of age.

The Cleveland International Film Festival and Fresh Water are media partners.

Read more articles by Mark Oprea.

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.