Imagine stepping into the mind of a heartbroken lover staring into a bathroom mirror, or a former white supremacist traversing memories of childhood trauma. As virtual reality (VR) technology continues its steady evolution, VR filmmaking is pushing the boundaries of traditional storytelling.
Each of the films featured at the “Immersively Queer: VR Showcase” at the Seattle Queer Film Festival (SQFF) showcase on October 19 run short, but time loses its familiar pull once you strap on a VR headset. The experience is physically disorienting, too, as turning your head reveals landscapes and characters that feel to exist whether or not you’re looking.
Unlike watching a big screen film, sitting elbow-to-elbow with other moviegoers, experiencing a film through a VR headset gives you “a personal moment to experience a story alone,” says Jess Byers, one of the founders and organizers of the North Bend Film Festival, which partnered with SQFF to host this year’s free showcase at Gay City in Capitol Hill. The intimate nature of VR lends especially well to introspective stories, and there’s great value in a form that brings queer narratives within reach of community members who benefit from evocative representation, as well as people living far outside the queer community seeking inroads to greater understanding. When watching a film narrative through immersive VR, “you can see into someone’s life a lot easier,” Byers adds.
Meeting a Monster, one of the films featured at the SQFF showcase and a project of the Oculus VR for Good Creators Lab, takes viewers into the life of Angela King, a lesbian and former white supremacist, as she relives traumatic recollections, from grade school bullying to a dismal home life, that she attributes to her hateful evolution. Witnessing King’s decline and eventual reinvention (she now works with Life After Hate, an organization founded by former extremists in part to dispel violent ideologies) achieves an effect similar to that of American History X, but does so in a fraction of the time—and with the added impact of documentary realness.
MindPalace, an animated German film, is set in a dark, abstract world, and shown from the perspective of a man in the final throws of a failing relationship. One viewer removed their headset and remarked on the sense of voyeurism it inspired, as if they needed consent to witness certain scenes in the film. Through Darcelle’s Eyes, a documentary that showcases the life of the oldest drag queen performer, 87-year-old Walter “Darcelle XV” Cole, brings viewers to the longest-running drag show on the West Coast.
Each of the films achieves a unique alignment between viewers and characters; it’s hard not to feel connected with someone as they’re looking you in the eye and telling you about some of their most emotional life experiences, or as you’re watching them grapple with pain in the privacy of their home. You’d have to close your eyes to look away, and for queer folk and other underrepresented communities, that’s a powerful tool in the fight for understanding.