IDFA: DocLab’s Caspar Sonnen on VR, Interactive Media and the ‘Elephant in the Room’

Karim Ben Khelifa The Enemy
Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

The DocLab Expo at IDFA this year offers a whole array of experiences. In Marcel Brakel and Frederik Duerinck’s “Famous Deaths” you are put into an isolation box where you are invited to hear and smell the final moments of late world leaders; Dries Depoorter’s “Sheriff Software” allows you to watch U.S. police cameras and report jaywalkers in the Midwest; while Ant Hampton’s “Cue China” puts you on conference call with low-paid tech workers.

As ever, there is a growing number of virtual reality installations too, such as Darren Emerson’s “Witness 360: 7/7”, in a which a survivor of the 2005 London tube bombings opens up about her experiences. Interestingly, however, this VR factor, like Karim Ben Khelifa’s “The Enemy,” in which you can walk between Israeli and Palestinian combatants, no longer seems like an experimental format.

As IDFA’s head of new media Caspar Sonnen attests, VR is starting to put down roots not just at the festival but in the film world at large. “I wouldn’t say we have a VR focus,” he says, “but I would say that the industry itself is now focusing on VR – and that shows in the submissions. Even people not working in VR are talking about it – Errol Morris, who came here to give a talk about his work and his relationship to technology, was talking about VR as well.”

Why the sudden interest? Says Sonnen, “Because it’s the elephant in the room, right? There’s so much money suddenly going into interactive, or VR. It’s an interesting thing to deal with. On the one side, everybody’s a bit uncomfortable with the silliness of the hype – it’s innovation driven by corporations wanting to sell devices, which is a very different approach to the way the artists you see here have been working. People were not selling computers when they made interactive artworks for the web, or installations. So it opens up these huge opportunities on the one side, but on the other, how do we stay focused on making great art and not just making demos for big companies?”

DocLab began in 2007 around the same time as Sundance’s New Frontier, and the two share a sensibility as open spaces for interactive art to be showcased. “We began with one live event, a couple of presentations and basically a website,” recalls Sonnen. “But we’ve been growing very quickly, and for the last seven years it really has become an important program within IDFA, and now interactive is one of the three focus points of the festival.”

This year’s DocLab Expo is called Seamless Reality. “It’s a broad theme,” says Sonnen, “in which we explore how physical and virtual worlds converge, and VR is definitely one of the media where that happens, because it is a physical experience but you’re in a completely digital environment. AI is a very strong theme too.” So what do we call this new approach? “One of the discussions we’ve been having – one of the perpetual discussions – is how do we define this? What is the word? I’ve always skewed away from the word transmedia, because I think that’s not a quality of a work. It just means multiple media. The word interactive has always been slightly more useful. But then the question is: are we talking about interactive narratives, or interactive artworks, or interactive media, or interactive experiences? It really depends on the work. Some of them are really about storytelling, others really aren’t.

“With projects that are trying to tell stories in a way that’s more similar to film,” he continues, “you can tell they’re making progress. But you can also see artists that are taking a completely different approach, who think that the medium might not be about a linear progression of narrative elements and more about putting someone inside a place, which is much more of a performance art/installation frame of mind. And documentary cinema is a place where both of those questions have always been relevant.”

(Pictured: “The Enemy”)