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Roger Ross Williams’ VR Doc ‘Traveling While Black’ Debuts at Sundance

“Traveling While Black,” a new virtual reality documentary from Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program Friday. The film, which draws a line from segregationist policies of the 1950s to modern-day police violence, was also released on the Oculus Go and Oculus Rift headsets, as well as the New York Times Op-Docs page Friday.

Williams told Variety this week that the inspiration for “Traveling While Black” came from a 2010 play called “The Green Book” that chronicled the history of mid-20th century travel guide by the same name — a kind of road trip survival guide designed to help African-American motorists avoid racist and potentially life-threatening establishments, and instead find safe and welcoming restaurants and other places of refuge.

Decades later, such travel guides don’t exist anymore, and we have laws that aim to prevent racial discrimination. Still, many things haven’t changed, argued Williams. “We are still at risk when we are traveling around,” he said. “We are always on edge, we are always at risk when we walk out of the door in this country.”

Williams partnered with Bonnie Nelson Schwartz, the executive director of the “Green Book” play, to bring the story to new audiences, and ultimately settled on virtual reality after receiving a Sundance grant to explore the new medium.

He was initially exploring all kinds of VR storytelling approaches, including animation and live action. Then, he saw “The People’s House,” the Obama White House documentary from Felix & Paul Studios. “I was so blown away by that,” he recalled. This ultimately led to him teaming up with the pioneering VR studio to turn the material into a documentary, with the New York Times and Oculus joining for financing and distribution.

The result of this collaboration is a remarkable 19-minute film that approaches the topic of the “Green Book’ from one of its listed safe spaces: Ben’s Chili Bowl, a Washington D.C. restaurant located next to the Lincoln Theatre.

Williams uses the restaurant as a backdrop to let viewers travel through the decades, and gives them to chance to sit face to face with contemporary witnesses ranging from the restaurant’s owner Virginia Ali to civil rights leader Courtland Cox to Samaria Rice, the mother of Tamir Rice, the teenager shot by Cleveland police in 2014.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Oculus

Tamir Rice’s mother, interviewed in “Traveling While Black.”

“It’s emotional, and it’s tough,” said Williams. “I want people to understand the pain, the challenges.”

“Traveling While Black” is Williams’ first VR film. Getting used to the unique challenges of the medium took some time, he admitted: “It was a big learning curve.” Early versions of the film were too dense, leading viewers to get distracted. “People were missing a lot,” he said.

Ultimately, he settled on a more deliberate pacing, using the soundtrack and even the lighting to give people space to reflect, and develop an emotional connection to the film’s subjects. “When I first saw the rendering of the piece, I was crying,” recalled Williams.

Oculus plans to bring the film to schools and museums in the coming months, and the New York Times is also showing a 360-degree version on its website. Both steps are designed to make sure that the audience is not limited to viewers who happen to own a VR headset.

Williams said that he hoped to give people a new perspective on the African-American experience in the U.S., and added with a jab at the movie with the same name currently playing in theaters: “I want people to learn about the real Green Book, as opposed to the Hollywood version.”

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