Virtual Reality Used To Tell Indigenous Story At Sundance Film Festival

When Indigenous elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan first caught sight of Lynette Wallworth’s virtual-reality camera, he quickly recognised its storytelling potential. “Nyarri looked at this camera and said: ‘It’s got 16 eyes and four ears’,” Wallworth says.

A Martu man from Western Australia’s remote Pilbara desert, Morgan’s first contact with Western culture occurred in the 1950s, when he witnessed the atomic tests at Maralinga.

Collisions tells Aboriginal elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan’s story. Photo: Piers Mussared

Cinematographer Patrick Meegan on location for the short film Collisions. Photo: Piers Mussared
Wallworth’s short film Collisions reveals the devastating consequences of this experience. Morgan also offers his perspective on caring for the planet for future generations.

“Really, it’s a story about the unintended consequences of technology and placing that against this extreme cultural interruption that occurred to Nyarri,” Wallworth says.

Collisions will be screened during the 2016 World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos Klosters, to be held from January 20 to 23, and at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Utah. Morgan, his wife and grandson will travel to Switzerland and the US with Wallworth to attend the screenings.

A scene from Collisions. Photo: Piers Mussared

Wallworth created the film after she was awarded a six-month residency by the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier program to work with Jaunt VR, a virtual-reality production company in Palo Alto, California.

The Sydney artist and filmmaker had also been invited to show a new immersive artwork to world leaders attending the World Economic Forum.

“I’d already known this story about Nyarri,” she says. “It just seemed like it was the perfect work to do in VR.”

Filmmakers travelled to remote Western Australian locations to make Collisions. Photo: Piers Mussared

Wallworth describes virtual reality as “a 360, 3D immersive experience that places the viewer inside the film”.

The technology effectively places the viewer in the position of Wallworth’s camera with, as Morgan noted, its 16 eyes and four ears.

“He could picture everything it could see much better than me,” she says. “He could tell me exactly where the camera could go, what it could see and what it wasn’t allowed to show.

New technology was used to film Collisions. Photo: Piers Mussared

“I really think there’s something in the ability to feel present in a place we actually could only go if invited. This is like a technological message in a bottle.”

Major Hollywood studios are investing heavily in virtual-reality filmmaking, with The Martian VR Experience one of 30 virtual-reality experiences offered at the Sundance festival, which begins on January 21. Based on Ridley Scott’s hit film The Martian, it promises viewers the chance to step into the shoes of astronaut Mark Watney​, played by Matt Damon, as he flies on to the surface of Mars, steers at zero gravity through space, and drives a rover.

Collisions was also supported by the Adelaide Film Festival, which has previously shown four works by Wallworth covering film, immersive technology and augmented reality.

“Her strength as an artist and filmmaker is that she can traverse these different and emerging technologies to create truly powerful work in each,” festival director Amanda Duthie says. “Adelaide Film Festival has a partnership with Sundance New Frontier, as we both seek to push the boundaries of how stories are told and developing new experiences for audiences.”

Wallworth’s Evolution of Fearlessness, about female political prisoners and survivors of war and trauma, was shown at Sundance in 2008, while Coral: Rekindling Venus played at the 2013 festival.

Making a virtual-reality film presented a range of challenges for Wallworth and her crew, who spent seven days shooting in Morgan’s country after travelling thousands of kilometres to the Western Australian mining town of Newman and then several more days travelling to and from the Pilbara desert.

The new technology presented its own difficulties, Wallworth says. “The post-production pathway is still evolving and still being developed. Every part you came to, you were working with people who had largely never done this before.”

But Wallworth says virtual reality is exciting for Australia, offering an opportunity to bridge the gulf between major population centres and remote communities.

“Your sense when you’re in the VR experience is you’re in Nyarri’s country,” she says. “You’re invited there. You are welcomed and you understand for this brief period of time you’re fortunate enough to be present.”

This article originally appeared in Digital Life, The Sydney Morning Herald’s home for everything technology. Follow Digital Life on Facebook and Twitter.

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