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Old World Charm Meets New Reality: VR at the Venice Film Festival

The oldest film festival in the world embraces a new medium: La Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica is the first to have launched a competitive section for virtual reality works alone. With 22 titles in the competition, the VR program allowed visitors to experience the newest applications of the VR technology in three different ways: a theater to watch screenings on rotating white chairs allowing for a 360-degree view; secondly, oculus stand ups to watch interactive works; and finally, installations. All of the three prizes were delivered by the president of the VR jury, American director John Landis, at an award ceremony that preceded the announcement of the Golden Lion Award.

In the past couple of years, festivals have started to include virtual reality rooms to allow multiple users to delight in the fascination of the headset. Cannes included Carne y Arena, an installation created by Oscar-winning director Alejandro Iñárritu. Other festivals, such as Sundance, Tribeca, Toronto, Geneva and Dubai, have all included small VR showcases; and now Venice has gone even further, dedicating an entire island to experience them. Just in front of the Lido a rapid boat ride would lead journalists to the Lazzaretto Vecchio, a historical gem of the Venetian Lagoon. In 1423, the isle was chosen by the Senate of the Serenissima Republic to establish the first hospital in the world for the treatment of plague-infected people. The enchanting building of that distant era created a contemplative setting for the futuristic medium to unfold its artistry. Visitors felt as if they were wandering in an art venue.


Alberto Barbera, the festival’s artistic director, declared that “until just a few months ago [VR] was considered little more than the latest technological gimmick.”  He proved to have foreseen its incommensurable potential in the art of cinematic storytelling, by creating a parallel exhibition space and competition within the Mostra del Cinema. The result was remarkable: the VR section, that was open to the press from August 31st to September 5th, registered over 3,000 visitors.

As regards the prizes, the Best VR Story Award (for linear content) went to Bloodless by South Korean filmmaker Gina Kim. Based on a true story, the 12-minute-long VR film tells of the last moments of life of a sex worker, who was brutally killed by an American soldier in a U.S. army camp-town in South Korea in the early 1990s.

The VR installation created by Huang Chien-hsin (黃心健), an art professor at National Chengchi University’s (NCCU) College of Communication, and American singer-songwriter Laurie Anderson won Best VR Experience Award. La Camera Insabbiata allows viewers to lose themselves in a fully interactive and immersive animation journey, as the reader flies through an enormous structure made of words, drawings and stories. Once you enter, you are free to roam and fly. Words sail through the air as emails. They fall into dust. They form and reform.

The Short film Arden’s Wake by American Eugene YK Chung won the Best Virtual Reality Award, which is the highest recognition for projects running in the competitive VR section, which the Venice Festival launched for the first time ever this year. This 16-minute-long animation feature tells the story of a little girl who lives with her father on the water. Eugene Chung thanked the festival’s organizers for “taking a chance and a leap of faith on virtual reality.” He further emphasized: “This is a new art form, and it is an incredible honor that the world’s oldest film festival has embraced for the first time this art form in official competition.