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VR Competition Heats Up at Venice Festival

Running Aug. 29-Sept. 7, the third edition of Venice VR will spotlight 39 unique projects, with 26 unspooling in the competition overseen by jury president Laurie Anderson and 13 more screening in the non-competitive Best of VR section.

Once more, curators Michel Reilhac and Liz Rosenthal have divided the Venice VR competition into two unique sections — one dedicated to 360° linear films and the other to more outwardly interactive projects.

Three of the 12 films competing in the linear category come from last year’s Grand Prize-winning studio, Atlas V.

The Paris-based production house, which took top honors with 2018’s “Spheres,” will bring a new installment of its popular series “BattleScar — Punk Was Invented by Girls.” The coming-of-age narrative is anchored by actress Rosario Dawson. It is also screening “Ex Anima Experience,” an equestrian show made in partnership with French circus artist Bartabas, and “Gloomy Eyes,” a Tim Burton-esque animated film from directors Jorge Tereso and Fernando Maldonado.

The nine remaining titles — all of which will play in the newly inaugurated VR Theater — chart a diverse course, spanning everything from animation (Chinese production “Black Bag”), narrative fiction (“Only the Mountain Remains,” an original film from headset manufacturer HTC Vive) to documentary (“The Waiting Room,” an intimate self-portrait of cancer treatment from director Victoria Mapplebeck).

Indeed, the curators are especially excited by this year’s documentary offerings, singling out director Joel Benson’s “Daughters of Chibok” as a particular title of interest.

“[It] tells the story from the point-of-view of a mother whose daughter has been abducted by rebels in northern Nigeria,” Reilhac says. “You witness the pain and tragedy of this kidnapping, and the consequences on the lives of these women. The fact that it’s in VR puts you into those houses, into this village.

“To me, it’s a very good example of how the expertise of a young filmmaker can totally translate to VR. As simple as it may look, it’s an example of how the world of cinema and VR can meet.”

Of the 14 projects found in the Interactive competition, several — including the BBC-commissioned “Doctor Who: The Edge of Time,” Sky Germany’s “Pagan Peak VR” and Sky U.K.’s “Britannia VR”— are built upon existing IP, while others — such as Brazil’s “The Line” and the Taiwan’s “Bodyless” — are wholly original properties.

Whatever their provenance, all the films share a similar goal.

“These are substantial projects that sit between game and narrative,” says Rosenthal. “They’re true interactive stories that make the viewer an active participant in the story world.”

Asked if any one trend stood out in particular among this year’s selections, both programmers noted the growing use of live performance within the Interactive section.

Reilhac cites such projects as “Loveseat,” “Cosmos Within Us” and “The Key” as examples of interactive works that weave in live elements with growing sophistication.

“It’s not pushed as a gimmick, or as an end unto itself,” he says. “Instead, it’s now one ingredient in the overall interactive mix.

“We feel this is important. When you start adding that kind of interactivity into the mix, that allows the viewer to start impacting how the story is going to unfold. And that’s when you can really break the fourth wall.”

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