The medium of virtual reality has still not much been explored in Pakistan. As the new technology opens up limitless possibilities, it also assists storytellers tell the stories they want in a much better way. Virtual reality, thus, is an emerging and a more immersive way to engage with narratives and art forms.
It’s quite fitting that one of the, if not the first film-maker in Pakistan, to delve into and experiment with this medium is Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. The two-time Oscar winner premiered her virtual reality documentary titled Look But With Love, as part of Karachi Biennale, at Frere Hall on October 25.
The five-part documentary series, for which US-based VR pioneer ‘Within’ provided the technology, showcases extraordinary Pakistanis who are changing the socio-political landscape of their communities through causes they personally feel for: a musician trying to preserve the melodies of his forefathers, a social activist campaigning for clean water in Thar, a classical dancer in Lahore conveying her knowledge to future generations, a doctor treating young patients in Karachi and an unstoppable all-women anti-terrorism squad.
It’s interesting to note how these simple stories become more impactful when told through the VR medium. “It puts you right in the middle of the action,” as Chinoy told The Express Tribune. One puts on the headset and is immediately transported to Lahore, standing in the middle of the children listening to their mentor as she shows them the dance steps, or you are transported to Tharparkar, witnessing people affected by lack of clean water.
The medium gives the viewer a powerful illusion that he/she is witnessing the action first-hand, unlike anything conventional cinema can do, because of its passive information-conveying nature. “It has two purposes: firstly, to show us Pakistanis a different side of Pakistan,” she asserted, adding, “And secondly, to the international community who’s always wondering what’s it like to be in Pakistan, we put them front and centre.”
Chinoy has previously won awards for her documentaries, then delved into animation - giving Pakistan its first two animated features in 3 Bahadur franchise, and now she’s experimenting with VR. Asked what comes first for her, the medium or the story, she immediately said, “I’m a storyteller, and I’m looking to take the stories and translate them into different mediums. For me, it was about how do we use technology to make films feel immediate, to make you feel like you’re walking in the footsteps of women who’re treading miles to collect water or in a shrine surrounded by musicians who are playing their instrument.”
She continued, “The only way to make you feel it is to put you in an immersive technology, which film is no longer is. Here, you’re looking everywhere, and I am just telling you generally what the film is about, but you, the viewer, direct the film yourself. You have the choice to look wherever you want.”
As to whether handing over the reins to the viewers compromises the film-maker’s vision of the story, she said, “The rules of virtual reality have not been written, as we’re the first generation of VR film-makers. So, let’s play with technology. You can’t explore a world by just staring at something and VR allows you to be there and feel the surroundings, acclimatise yourself. So, my film-making has to change with the medium. But at the end of the day, it’s a story. So, you walk away with learning about the story.”
The six-time Emmy Award winner shared her future plans too, saying she has got several different projects in the pipeline. “We are also using animation in documentary films now, she said. “We have a partly-animated documentary film titled Freedom Fighters coming out in a few months. We are experimenting with form all the time. As a film-maker, you need to push yourself and even make the audience think about new mediums and new ways of experiencing stories.”
Whether she’s going to do a feature film, she said there was so much more she could do with the kind of stories she wanted to tell, but denied having a feature in the pipeline. Rather she said, “For now, we will be doing more of augmented and virtual reality content.”