By Eric Sasono, Film critic

16 June 2016 - 22:14

Virtual Reality at Sheffield Documentary Festival 2016
At Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Virtual Reality Arcade, co-programmed by Site Gallery, you can fulfil your childhood fantasies to travel back in time, become an astronaut or meet an aboriginal elder in the middle of the Australian desert. ©

Sheffield Doc/Fest

Alternate Reality: the sexy part of Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016. It is about the use of new technology to develop a range of new formats for documentary projects. Technological advancement, in this case, is not only for the production or the distribution of filmmaking. It is also about the medium of film itself and the platform on which it is presented. 

At Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016, Alternate Reality not only shows the newest of technology, by using iPads or Virtual Reality Glasses like Oculus Rift, but as with other conventional documentary film festivals, there are also networking events for delegates (creators, producers, and financiers) to pitch ideas, participate in the marketplace and to distribute their films.

But are the networking events for Alternate Reality Documentary really similar to those of conventional film festivals?

I asked one of the leading figures who took the market space of Sheffield Doc/Fest to become one of the most important markets for documentary film in Europe, Karolina Lidin, in a brief mentoring session. She said that the market for the new technology is still new and yet to be fully formed. One of the main discussions they are still having in the industry is to determine whether it is better to put them together with the conventional documentary films, under one umbrella as ‘Content’ or is it better to have them separately as they each have their own personalities. What I did see, in this new market field, is that Google seems to be playing in it, although I am not too sure of what exactly are they developing.

So, what were the Alternate Reality documentary projects like at Sheffield Doc/Fest in terms of aesthetic?

I watched three bodies of work that were shown as Virtual Reality (VR) and played with a piece presented in interactive on a tablet.


The work presented on a tablet was the John Lennon: Bermuda Tapes. The piece made use of John Lennon’s recordings whilst he was traveling to and in Bermuda, where he found inspiration for his album 'Double Fantasy'. Just like other traditional websites, the work can be enjoyed in linear. But the user can also jump through categories, even plant a tree in a virtual garden.

This interactive project is what Lev Manovich (1998) describes as using the database as a symbol in contemporary medium, where the use and manipulation of data are at the forefront of the piece, and the narrative falls at the back. In this concept, the viewer (or user?) makes their own narrative using the available algorithm.

On the other hand, the three VR works that I saw, the narrative already exists. In all three VR pieces, the narrative is provided by the filmmaker, enhanced with a good level of interactivity, especially when combined with 360-degree films. With the ability to capture images that cover all angles of our sight, where we can turn our heads right-left, up and down, can be used to support the narrative to make a fuller picture. 


The work titled Invisible by Darren Emerson, uses the virtual space to takes the audience on an immersive story of survivors of UK’s immigration detention system. Emerson showed the detention hall seemingly questioning the position of those people in a space where their rights have been taken away from them – the result of UK policy of not limiting the time of migrant detention in the hall. Some of these migrants did not survive the journey, especially those who travels across the sea. Emerson uses the depth of the virtual room to make us look up to be able to see the sea surface where you can see bodies that are drowning in the sea.

The majority of the images in Invisible is Live Action, but enlarged, more than the usual size we see. The gigantic size created the sense of being pressured, making us lose orientation, and the whole experience unusual.


The second piece I watched called Easter Rising: Voice of a Rebel by Oscar Raby is also linear. The story is about an Irish Rebel in 1916, from the experience Willie McNieve. The story centres around the five days where they took over the main post office, which was then the centre of communication of Britain. Made with rough animation and digital images, the work tries really hard to immerse us in the situation at that time, including giving direction as to where we can see. To me, the piece is not that special, besides the times when we were asked to look behind a wall, and realised there is nothing there. 

Tablet showing the initial interactive documentary - John Lennon the Bermuda Tapes
John Lennon: The Bermuda Tapes - an interactive documentary by Communications Arts
Man experiencing Virtual Reality using VR goggles
Experiencing Virtual Reality at Sheffield Documentary Festival 2016. ©

Amanda Marahimin


The third work I watched, In My Shoes: Dancing with Myself, has become so far the most interesting experience I've had at Sheffield Doc/Fest. This piece by Jane Gauntlet tells the story of how she developed epilepsy after a cycling accident. It is shown using Virtual Reality Goggles in a co-working space turned into a small café. Before we start we were presented with a menu, a menu you can’t actually order from. 

It tells the story through Jane's eyes when she is experiencing epileptic attacks whilst going about her normal daily life. It concentrates at a time when she meets her friend at a restaurant in London. At first, everything seems to be going smoothly, but we then can see some anomalies in her eyes. For example the different sounds in Jane’s head compared to with what she is actually saying when she tells us her mental exhaustion of having to deal with what she is facing. 

Several times she (we) closes her eyes, inhaling deeply to calm herself down when she is having a conversation. The screen went dark then light again, and then she was suddenly surrounded by people looking at her with worry in their eyes. She was unconscious for 20 minutes and couldn't remember what happened. This project succeeded in making us experience ‘first hand’ what it is like to be epileptic 

The most interesting part of Alternate Reality is the fact that it is much more closely related to documentary films than it is to fiction films. For me, one of the reason's for this is the documentary film’s aspect of showing ‘the truth’. A documentary film is, like John Grierson, one of documentary film pioneers said, ‘the creative treatment of actuality’. Therefore, these new tools and techniques are a part of that creativity. 

Documentary films allow viewers the benefit of doubt to whether or not they are watching some sort of ‘truth’, rather than being manipulated emotionally. So stories of experience told like In My Shoes – which perhaps already exist in fictional film – being a documentary highlights the fact that stories are not an illusion.

Read more stories from Sheffield by Eric Sasono