Documentaries have always existed to record some aspect of reality and the world we live in. They educate and immerse the viewer in areas which may otherwise be alien to them, and until now this has almost exclusively been done through film.

But developments in virtual reality technology and immersive viewing experiences in recent years have offered new ways of engaging viewers in documentaries, and this has only furthered their educational potential.

Sheffield Doc/Fest showcased a variety of these new technologies and experiences at this year’s festival. I went down to check them out, and to see how they are changing the landscape of documentary making.

DOUBLETHINK, Tudor Square

Two shipping containers planted in the middle of Tudor Square at the Doc/Fest Exchange played host to Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s immersive video installation DOUBLETHINK.

Participants were asked to choose between the two containers, one marked ‘HOPE’ and one marked ‘HATE’. Inside the dark (and incredibly warm) containers, there was only four small benches, and one screen at the far end of the room.

Would you choose hate or hope?

The film was a single monologue, about 15 minutes long, written by Stuart Evers and performed by George Mackay (Captain Fantastic, Pride). In a single shot, Mackay took us on a journey which emphasised the importance of being optimistic, impulsive and – of course – hopeful. As strong as Mackay’s delivery would be on any screen, the power of the film rested on the viewer’s immersion. In the dark container, with no distractions, it felt as though you were not watching a screen, but instead experiencing Mackay’s character tell his story from the other end of a long room.

Alternate Realities Portal (presented by Igloo Vision), Tudor Square

Also in Tudor Square was Igloo Vision’s Alternate Realities Portal, a six-metre projection dome housing a 360 degree panoramic screen.

The dome showed curations of films centred on specific topics, and I watched a curation focused on Fear. This included ‘Berlin Paris Terror’ (two films focusing on the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 and Berlin in 2016), and ‘Life After Hate: Meeting a Monster’, which immersed us in the experiences of Angela King, a former white supremacist.

The world’s most technologically advanced igloo

First-hand testimonies were combined with real footage and illustrations in ‘Berlin Paris Terror’ to put the viewer right in the middle of the Christmas market in Berlin which was hit by a lorry, and the basement of a kosher supermarket in Paris in which hostages cowered from a gunman. In ‘Life After Hate: Meeting a Monster’, we were in the middle of King’s bedroom as an actor recreated the isolation, pain and anger which led her young self to seek acceptance among white supremacists. We were later with her in prison as black women approached and befriended her, despite her racist beliefs, and helped her break the cycle of hatred.

Viewing these experiences would be chilling enough, but being planted in the middle of them went a step further to conveying the sense of fear and hopelessness that the filmmakers are trying to express.

The World Unknown to You, Trafalgar Warehouse

Trafalgar Warehouse was filled with futuristic VR tech

Away from the lively hub of the festival, the exhibition space of Trafalgar Warehouse housed the most immersive experiences the festival had to offer. From video games to interactive stories, the experiences ranged widely in the levels of immersion and technology involved, but all showcased alternative ways in which stories can be documented and conveyed to viewers.

‘Life in VR – California Coast’, was an interactive virtual reality documentary in which the viewer, through a VR headset, followed sea otters, squid, zooplankton and sperm whales through the depths of the ocean. The viewer could follow the creatures throughout, or explore other optional routes before returning to the main path.The graphics were basic and at times clunky, but the experience was educational, exciting, and will make you wish it to be perfected sooner rather than later. Blue Planet eat your heart out? Not quite. But the potential is there.

For me, though, the most complete experience of the day was ‘The Day The World Changed’. Described as a social VR experience, this involved four participants inhabiting the same space to explore and interact with the decaying ruins of post-bomb Hiroshima in 1945. All participants appeared in each others virtual worlds as ghostly, cowering figures, adding a chilling level of fear to an already sobering environment. The technology was near perfect, and the quality of the 3D recreations added such depth to the experience that I almost forgot I was in a warehouse in Sheffield. The aim of this documentary was to raise awareness of the devastating consequences of nuclear warheads, and it certainly succeeded.

The Day the World Changed

Each of these experiences at Sheffield Doc/Fest offered varying levels and methods of immersion and interactivity. Some were more effective than others, yet all succeeded in demonstrating how documentary no longer needs to be restricted to film. The more I found myself immersed in these experiences, and the more I interacted with them, the more I found myself invested in the stories and messages they were trying to express.

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