Expanded Reality at the 2020 London Film Festival

The LFF’s first venture into XR arrives in the year of our acceleration into the virtual world – and the collected works capture the human sadness and joy of the moment.

15 October 2020

By Marisol Grandon

A virtual reality version of BFI Southbank
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Expanded runs in the London Film Festival until Sunday 18 October online and at BFI Southbank. See How to experience LFF Expanded.

“Imagine being bodiless,” says a voice eagerly in To Miss the Ending, an immersive story about a dystopian future featuring at this year’s London Film Festival. Post-pandemic, you may be forgiven if the sentiment touches a nerve. Eight months in, we are experiencing drastically altered social states, atomised society, tactile deprivation, relationships recast via Zoom and a devastated cultural sector. For better or worse, 2020 has accelerated our journey into the virtual world, and nothing underscores what we are in the process of losing more than the painful news of cinema and arts venue closures.

So Expanded, the LFF’s inaugural extended reality strand, is truly a meaningful moment. It ought to have been cause for major celebration by global cinematic XR enthusiasts: at last, recognition and validation from the UK’s top film festival of XR as a new cinematic art form, one with the seemingly infinite possibility to transport, challenge, delight and soothe through immersive sight, sound, performance, haptics, art and story. Coming at a moment of surging Covid-19 cases, with tighter restrictions arriving in many European countries, the programme is drawing far less fanfare than it deserves.

Yet the collected works have a quiet, profound beauty, and must be seen. Expanded is a selection of more than 20 pieces including nine interactive works and 11 films shot in 360 or 180 degrees, an augmented reality installation, various talks in VR and online, even an audience-driven, motion capture performance live streamed on YouTube. Introspective and poetic, Expanded succeeds in conveying immense sadness and joy in the human experience and the isolating, post-human times we are living in.

On the corporeal end of the spectrum, there is Dazzle: SOLO, a set of absurdist monochrome soundscapes inspired by the Chelsea Arts Club’s 1919 Great Dazzle Ball. Visitors spend time in a series of black and white, wildly patterned scenes and characters set to playful glitchy electronica, paying tribute to the elaborate costumes worn at the ball: stripes, twists, spirals, harlequins and polkadots compete with grey space and grainy, visual noise. While it has the potential to induce trypophobia (an aversion to clusters of small holes), it’s certainly one to seek out if you’re in the mood for ecstatic dancing.

So too is Toby Coffey’s All Kinds of Limbo, an immersive musical experience originally commissioned by the BFI’s neighbours at the National Theatre to support Small Island, the stage version of Andrea Levy’s novel about the Windrush generation. Both pieces were conceived as ‘multiplayer’ – for viewers to share the experience either within the same installation space or virtually from separate locations. Of course, now only the latter is a safe option. So the concept of multiplayer experiences takes on a new poignancy in 2020 – and both are presented here as solo pieces.

Live performance and dance feature heavily in programmer Ulrich Schrauth’s selection. Acqua Alta – Crossing the Mirror is an augmented reality installation featuring illustrations by French artists Adrien M & Claire B. It works via the ‘magic window’ method – viewing through a tablet with headphones on – and can only be enjoyed in person at BFI Southbank. Participants are given an iPad and are invited to gaze through to a series of open pop-up books. Therein unfolds a mesmerising, miniature love story told through dance and animation which calls to mind the style of Punchdrunk theatrical productions more than cinema.

Documentary VR is well represented, and Expanded does an excellent job of capturing vital British issues of identity, cultural anxiety and self expression as well as international ones. A triptych of hidden London narratives reveal fascinating new dimensions to the city and give a special London character to the selection. First, don’t miss Darren Emerson’s incredible Common Ground, a documentary about the Aylesbury Estate in south London which has been reformed for the festival from its original room scale format to a 360. Undimmed, it remains one of the best documentaries in VR.

Dance of another kind is the subject of Gimme One, the extraordinarily visual story of five members of the UK’s ballroom community which presents a privileged, close-up invitation into an underground world.

Heading to the East End, you’ll find The Martha Street Experience from director Peter Collis, which explores issues facing the Bengali community living in Shadwell, an unloved and misunderstood corner of London: knife crime, drugs, gangs, but also community in action, compassion and love.

Fabian Vetter’s People2People films are also worth watching as a set. These films document life on either side of Israeli/Palestinian divide. On the one hand there is Sarah, a musician struggling to define her identity who chooses to live in Gaza, and on the other there is Yaakov, a Holocaust survivor and retired teacher.

There is a potency to 360 as a medium in these stories. As a virtual visitor to the nucleus of this tension, it’s possible to confront and examine up-close the physical walls that separate these two individuals.

For cineastes, two films should be included in viewing: Missing Pictures – Birds of Prey and Odyssey 1.4.9, an homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The former features director Abel Ferrara recounting the story of a movie that didn’t happen, Birds of Prey. It’s like walking into a graphic novel – a dazzling journey into the neon alleys and rooftops of New York City of times gone by. And though it paints a picture of a very tough era, it provides a welcome escape from the challenges outside of the headset.

If there is one criticism of the programme, it is the general lack of fictional narratives; instead, performance, therapeutic VR, documentary, music and art take centre stage. Perhaps this reflects XR’s affinity with these elements, though full-length, cinematic stories do seem necessary for the medium to progress in terms of wider appeal.

The LFF has done a fantastic job to make the programme available and accessible. Much of the programme is available to see at home just through a web browser. For those with Oculus Rift, Quest or Vive headsets, the full range of films are free to watch from home.

Most impressively, for those who can visit the Southbank in person, a wonderful experience awaits. The organisers have created a special, VIP atmosphere and naturally the entire operation is spotless. For the time being, having a body still counts for something.