VR Island at Venice International Film Festival Bedazzles Public

The 74th edition of the Mostra Internazionale D’Arte Cinematografica – La Biennale di Venezia’s Venice International Film Festival, the oldest movie festival in the world, which took place from 30 August to 9 September, 2017, was a special one – for the first time in the history of major film festivals, a competition section was added and dedicated to Virtual Reality. 

Attended by three members of the World VR Forum crew: Salar Shahna, Creative Director and CEO; Maria Guta, Director of programming; and Ellen Kuo, Head of Market Development, the Festival hit a major milestone this year with the addition of the latest high-tech medium in the current digital revolution – Virtual Reality.

Just across the canal from Lido Island, home base of the Festival, and no more than a minute away by boat there is Lazzaretto Vecchio, an island of the Venetian Lagoon, where the plague infested were sent and isolated back in the 15th – 16th centuries CE. With little exception, nothing really happened there until this year, when the ruins turned into the home of the newest baby of the Festival – the VR playground.

Venice VR is the ambitious initiative of Co-Curators of the Venice VR Competition: Michel Reilhac, an independent interactive story architect and Liz Rosenthal, CEO of Power to the Pixel. The rumours about this much anticipated event started circulating in the exclusive circles of VR devotees since the beginning of the year when College Cinema Biennale was launching their call for submissions for VR projects. Venice VR delighted the lucky crowd from 31 August to 5 September.

Once the boat arrived on Lazzaretto Vecchio, you found yourself on the little shore that took you straight inside the building. The space, an impeccable mix of ruins, wild vegetation and new technology was harmoniously divided into a VR Theatre, the Installations area, the Stand Ups, an indoor space for socializing or for hiding away from the thunderstorms and the interior yard, a cozy place to chill, chat, sip a perfect espresso or to catch some friendly Venetian UV rays, before diving into the next VR experience.

Shahna was invited to participate at China Europe Virtual Reality Technology Summit Forum, hosted by ANICA INCONTRA – FOCUS CINA, as a speaker in The Future Is Coming, Let’s VR Waiting! panel during the Festival’s VR market called Venice Production Bridge at the Hotel Excelsior on Lido, on 2 September. The panel consisted of three Chinese experts: Pan Zhi, General Manager of Xinhuanet Europe who made the opening remarks; Qiao Yueshan, Deputy Director-general from the Department of Information Technology Industry, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology China; Zhao Bo, President of China Electronics Standardization Institute; and three Europeans: Antoine Cayrol, Partner Producer at Okio-Studio, Rosenthal and Shahna with the key speech.

Shahna spoke about WVRF’s latest shenanigans, WVRF’s excitement with the VR competition in Venice as it gave a lot of care to VR, matching the standards that WVRF has defined for displaying VR, treating each work as a true piece of art with its own space, our overall satisfaction, especially since Reilhac who was Co-Curator, was WVRF’s Annual Summit’s Chairman for the inaugural edition. The rest of the panel speech focused on WVRF’s collaboration with China.

According to Shahna, “in 2016, we were the first to bring foreign VR content to China, to Shanghai International Film Festival. It’s amazing to witness how China has grown since that time. Back then, it would have been almost impossible for China to deliver VR content that was selected for the Festival. However, over the year, their quality has risen immensely and they now have four pieces selected in Venice.”

Some of the challenges in reaching out to the audience were brought up during the panel. Cayrol emphasized the need to create blockbusters, marketing and mythology around each piece of content while Rosenthal spoke on content financing methods and the Chinese experts discussed the standards for VR creation. It was a successful panel with many intriguing questions from the crowd.

The VR Theatre was hosted in a wide warehouse like space where about 50 swivel chairs were placed and 360° video sessions were playing every hour. At the entrance to the VR Theatre, you could try the HTC Vive version of The Deserted, the VR debut of the well known Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, which was also part of the VR Theatre selection.

While The Deserted was the longest 360° experience I’ve ever seen - 55 minutes in length, it was also one of the most visually poetic pieces of the whole Venice VR selection,” said Guta.


The 360° novelty from China was such a hit that Jaunt VR, which produced The Deserted threw a party in its honour were WVRF got to meet Tsai Ming-Liang and was reassured about China’s profound progress in the VR medium.

The jury for the Venice VR competition consisted of a regal troop of European filmmakers, led by John Landis, the director of The Blues Brothers and Trading Places, along with Céline Sciamma and Ricky Tognazzi, all seasoned connoisseurs of the Seventh Art.

There were six sessions daily within the VR Theatre, with the same programme every day. Among some of the attention grabbers was Bloodless by Gina Kim, a very strong Korean short on camptown prostitution, that also won the Best VR Story Award. Denoise, another audio-visual treat, was one of the three College Biennale productions that were participating out of the competition and which struck a chord with its impeccable sound and editing work. Another memorable experience and an artistic approach on a spatiotemporal loop was Proxima by the French filmmaker and architect Mathieu Pradat.

Booked to the max and with overflowing waiting lists, the VR Installations section was never lacking in visitors. There were some “pieces de resistance” though, like Alice, the Virtual Reality Play by Marie Jourdren and Mathias Chelebourg, from France, which puts the viewer into Lewis Carroll’s classic masterpiece; Draw Me Close: A Memoir co-created by Jordan Tannahill, the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) and The National Theatre of Great Britain (NT) about the relationship between a mother and her son in the wake of her terminal-cancer diagnosis – seen from the son’s perspective, which blends live performance, VR and animation; and La camera insabbiata (The Sandroom) by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang, a whimsical celebration of storytelling (which also won the Best VR Experience Award (for interactive content). Laurie Anderson’s participation within Venice VR was also one of the nicest surprises of the overall selection, it’s great to see how, after emerging as an avant-garde in the 70s, Mrs. Anderson kept her status almost 40 years later by exploring Virtual Reality and its new possibilities.

The GRAND PRIZE winner of Best VR Award for this edition was the extended version of Arden’s Wake by Eugene Chung of Penrose Studios from the USA about a young girl who lost her mother in the sea and now lives with her dad on top of a dome like structure. Also shown at Tribeca Film Festival, and this year’s WVRF’s Annual Summit in Crans-Montana, it highlighted the supreme quality and production value of his work. For a full list of the awardees please visit this page.

I was amazed at the number of people who said that it was the first time they came to Venice for the Festival and all thanks to VR, which proves the meaningfulness of Venice VR,” said Shahna.

Photo credit : Maria Guta