Africans want in on Virtual Reality

New artistic possibilities are boundless for 360° film as the technology becomes more accessible.

The human desire to experience another perspective, place or reality has a long history in the visual arts. Recent innovations mean 360° video is now frequently available on social media, with content from news outlets and humanitarian organizations. With the advent of this increasingly accessible technology, the storyteller’s toolkit is suddenly more powerful. The ability to create an immersive experience for the audience changes how narratives are constructed and received. Africans also want in on the game.

Virtual reality (VR) technology provides another a form of storytelling for filmmakers.

Four new VR films–presented by Electric South and the Goethe-Institut, supported by Big World Cinema, Blue Ice Docs and the Bertha Foundation–have been making the rounds of festivals and special screenings around the continent. They are: Let This Be A Warning by The Nest Collective, The Other Dakar by Selly Rabe Kane, Nairobi Berries by Ng’endo Mukii, and Spirit Robot by Jonathan Dotse. (This was the second year, for example, that the annual Encounters Documentary Film Festival in South Africa included a Virtual Encounters Exhibition, for example.)

When I watched Let This Be A Warning, I recognized the common technique of using science-fiction to critique society from an alternative view point. The Nest Collective, out of Nairobi, Kenya tells an African story through the often white-dominated genre of sci-fi because of its potential for commentary. The premise is around the arrival of a presumably white space traveler landing on a colonized black world and the reaction of that society to this visitor. The filmmakers wonder whether future black worlds will be as welcoming to “westerners” as they were before. The first person point of view, like a video game, makes the audience look through the unwelcome visitor’s eyes. I am curious how different audiences receive this social question. How does this film play to an audience of color versus a white audience? What kinds of conversations about the past and potential future are initiated?

The Other Dakar is a strange journey of magical realism, described as an homage to Senegalese mythology. The creator, Selly Rabe Kane, known worldwide for her fashion designs, uses her talents to build a stunningly beautiful and surreal experience. Otherworldly fashion driving the story reflects Kane’s sensibilities as a designer. This world of Dakar, as explored by a little girl in the film, is full of symbolism with striking colors, and patterns. Although I was somewhat disoriented in the fantastical 360° video, the central message was clear: artists are at the core of Dakar’s cultural soul. Watching this film triggers reflection on the role of artists in cities throughout Africa and beyond.

A poetic dreamscape in Nairobi Berries is a representation of filmmaker Ng’endo Mukii’s feelings about living in the city of Nairobi. Two women and a man are seen passing through each lyrical scene. Themes of beauty and darkness, so common in urban life, struggle with each other at every step. Ng’endo uses bold colors, animations of butterflies, water, and fire as visual metaphors of her emotions. She taps into the powerful nature of immersive media that cuts through a viewer’s intellectual analysis of an experience. The themes of the beauty and hardness of daily life in Nairobi can be universalized to the common urban reality.

The use of public spaces is a constant battle in every city. The Chale Wote Street Art Festival transforms the streets of Accra, Ghana, into open spaces of dance, music, painting and other art forms. Jonathan Dotse, from Afrocyberpunk, explores the 6th annual Festival in the film Spirit Robot, named after that year’s theme. The event, as explained in the film, was organized to address the lack of infrastructural support for art. The viewers are transported through the streets of Accra to experience several art pieces as they learn about the festival’s story. I was captivated by the art in each scene, particularly when hearing the mural painter mixing his colors and seeing an audience watching an elegant dancer. I enjoyed learning about the festival, but the narration was hard to follow in the VR environment and I wanted to invest more time to fully absorb what was happening around me.

Without the constraints of traditional video, narrative structures must be transformed to effectively communicate to the immersed viewer. New artistic possibilities are boundless for 360° film as the technology becomes more accessible.

Further Reading