JEDDAH: Ever wondered what the future of storytelling looks like?

Saudi audiences are about to find out, thanks to Red Sea: Immersive, a program of virtual reality experiences organized as part of the inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival, which is running until Dec. 15 at Jeddah’s newly opened creative complex Hayy Jameel.

Audiences will don virtual reality headsets and step into the shoes of a character as they journey through a 360-degree story world that draws on the skills of theater directors, filmmakers and architects — and even gamers.

Red Sea: Immersive features a selection from award-winning international artists and directors that will appeal to all types of audiences, with documentaries, animations and interactive narratives, as well as games, art and virtual world explorations.

Hayy Jameel, which includes galleries, art and design studios and the Kingdom’s first arthouse cinema, is an ideal venue for the VR program.

In collaboration with Art Jameel, Red Sea: Immersive will showcase 21 programs, including ground-breaking VR works produced in 2021 by directors and artists from the UK, France, Taiwan, the US, Germany and Denmark.

A competition for the Golden Yusr Immersive Award, including a cash prize of $10,000, will be judged by an all-female jury led by US multimedia artist Laurie Anderson.

Liz Rosenthal, curator of Red Sea: Immersive, told Arab News that the program aims to show Saudi directors, artists, illustrators and audiences that virtual reality is a unique new platform to create stories, produce art and build story worlds.

“The program will be inspiring because it’s really about using new tools to tell stories. So, I’m really hoping the selection that we show is going to be an inspiration to artists,” Rosenthal, who also curated Venice VR at the Venice International Film Festival, said.

While people in Saudi Arabia are familiar with flat-screen media, such as film, television and social media, “the 360 VR experience will give them a chance to visit new worlds,” she said.

“I’m really excited about showing them emotions, stories and how you can enter into a story world in a 360-degree spatial way. It’s powerful,” Rosenthal said.

The VR experiences include “Anandala,” “End of Night,” “Genesis,” “Glimpse,” “Goliath: Playing with Reality,” “Kusunda,” “Laika,” “Lavrynthos,” “Le Bal De Paris De Blanca Li,” “Marco and Polo Go Round,” “Reeducated,” “Samsara (Lun Hui),” and “The Sick Rose.”

VR projects are very different to filmmaking, Rosenthal said.

“Filmmaking is about the flat screen. It’s about a director and an editor, deciding where you cut each scene, whether there’s a long shot or a wide shot, or a close-up. But in VR there’s agency for the viewer because you’re in a 360-degree environment, and can interact with characters and the story. It is a very different medium to filmmaking.”

She added: “It involves many different disciplines, and so filmmaking is a very important part of it, but it’s going to be exciting how filmmakers work with other people from other disciplines to create these experiences.”

Each experience features an artificial world and various formats such as animation, documentaries, love stories, abstract art, and journeys through place, time and emotions.

Viewers in some experiences can become involved in real-time performance, using game engine controllers to play an interactive role in helping a character.

Rosenthal said: “Red Sea: Immersive has selected the best virtual reality projects of the past two years. I’ve done a competition section with 13 projects, but I also wanted to show that there are many different genres and subject matters that can be covered with virtual reality tools. So, it’s really a wide selection.”

She added: “I selected around eight other experiences that were produced in 2020. And there are some of my favorite experiences that have been shown and won awards at different festivals. But the competition section is all about the projects that have been produced in 2021. So, we have, for example, three projects that were the main award winners at the Venice Film Festival.”

According to Rosenthal, using a technology such as VR requires skills in a range of areas, such as games design, architecture and spatial design.

The real-time interaction experience “Glimpse” is a collaboration between a game designer and a film director.

“Benjamin Cleary, the director of ‘Glimpse,’ has previously won an Oscar for a short film, while his co-director, Michael O’Connor, is more involved in the games world and used to work at Sega, the video-game company. So, you need a knowledge of game engines, and you need to be able to direct and tell the story like a filmmaker,” Rosenthal said.

“We hope that this is going to be an inspiration to different creators, storytellers and filmmakers. But what’s really new about virtual reality is that it really brings together different artistic mediums,” she added.

The Hayy Jameel venue has 14 booths where the audience can book a one-hour slot to watch any of the 21 projects. Longer bookings to cover most of the projects are also available.

The inaugural edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival will support emerging talents and bring the best in Arab and world cinema to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Jeddah Old Town until Dec. 15, 2021.


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