It’s been more than six weeks since San Francisco began quarantine, and most of the city’s residents have either worked essential jobs, run errands or stay at home. So it was a bit strange to sit in a small living room with a handful of strangers to do a brief meeting with directors Jason Loftus and Eric Pedicelli before the screening of their new documentary, Don’t ask questions.
It was the typical screening experience. I awkwardly looked around, tried to figure out who everyone was, and went through some potential question notes for Loftus (who also served as the film’s co-writer). What wasn’t so typical – beyond not wearing a mask or practicing social distancing – was that the whole event took place in my living room.
The screening, conceived as a benefit for the Roxie Theater, with support from SF DocFest, came straight to me – thanks to the technological magic of virtual reality. It was presented by Canadian company Lofty Sky Entertainment, the production company behind Don’t ask questions – and through an initiative called VR Movie House, which used Bigscreen VR software to teleport us into this digital cinema.
The group of individuals present would be the theater audience for this screening. Instead of being physically together in a small screening room, everyone was seated at their respective locations in North America. Rather than being the typical screening questions, people got used to the new software and the experience of sitting around the virtual room. Loftus himself was helpful in making sure everyone understood how their interface worked and that they could be heard and they could be overheard as well.
The view through my Oculus Quest was of a circular room with a large screen towering over a wall and a fireplace on one side. I felt like I was on the set of a Pixar movie. While my virtual surroundings weren’t photorealistic, they were close enough to make me feel like I was actually in physical space. Those present were depicted as less realistic floating torsos, with a head and two hands. During the Bigscreen VR account creation process, each individual is asked to customize their avatar with a range of hairstyles, skin tones, gender, and other accents, so there was a range of appearances. individual present in the room.
While it might not seem important to those new to VR, there are a number of body languages ââthat can be learned from it, such as head tilts and hand movements. Generally speaking, most VR users don’t have full tracker access at this point, so virtual room avatars don’t have a lot of emotions.
However, while waiting for the event to start, I realized I could wave my virtual hands and choose from a collection of props to hold – including a drink, a box of popcorn, a tomato, and a kit. of drawing. The latter offers a glass full of sharpies and markers (and an eraser) so you can draw in 3D space in front of your avatar. Other items that you can hold in your hand, throw, and drop. It’s not much, but it helps create an atmosphere. Since it was a polite crowd, everyone put the tomatoes and other disposables away.
In order for audiences to properly adjust their audio levels, the trailer for the film was released. It was nice to see that there was no noticeable lag in the visuals – neither looking around the room at the avatars, nor in the rendering of the trailer.
I did a quick check by doing a few quick head turns; there was no graphic tearing or the types of artifacts that can lead to nausea in many VR applications. The audio quality was crisp and clear, both from the various avatars in the room and from the movie.
It was the fourth screening round of the day, and the capacity of the Bigscreen room is currently limited to 12 people at a time. The previous screenings had all been complete and ours only lacked a few avatars for a full roster. After making sure that everyone who bought tickets was able to get in successfully, the hall disappeared and was replaced with traditional theatrical decor.
Each participant was able to move around the theater to choose a seat that suited them (people gravitated to where they sat in a real-world auditorium). Everyone was reminded to mute their headphones (to prevent capricious background noise from entering and distracting the rest of the audience), and the movie began.
Within minutes, I settled into the feeling that I was really sitting in a theater with other people around me. Looking around, some participants were sitting still, while others were waving or turning away from the screen. While these elements contributed to the feeling of actually being in the cinema and the theater space was presented in high definition, the âscreenâ resolution was less ideal. On the Bigscreen VR platform, the presentation qualities of the movies are at the mercy of the capabilities of the computer playing the video – as well as the Internet performance between that computer and Bigscreen’s servers. It was fully watchable and an image as good as many YouTube videos, but it was far from a crisp HD stream. Then again, after a short time, I got used to the artifact in the image and was able to just enjoy the movie.
Don’t ask questions revisits the events surrounding a grisly incident, which occurred on January 23, 2001, in Tiananmen Square. The official position of the Chinese government was that seven Falun Gong followers were part of an effort to self-immolate themselves in protest against their treatment by the government. The group of seven included two couples of mothers and their young daughters. The impact of the inclusion of children led the Chinese public as well as international observers to shift their perception of the Falun Gong movement from a suppressed religious order to an internal group of disgruntled people who were prepared to kill innocent children in order to argue a political point of view.
The film explores actual footage of the event, from both CNN reporters who were at the scene as well as state official media, and includes interviews with a number of people who had been involved or present at the event. Those interviewed include Loftus himself, who had become a follower of Falun Gong; when he learned of the incident and the way it was presented by the Chinese media, he sensed that something was wrong.
Ruichang Chen, a former state television producer and also a Falun Gong practitioner is widely interviewed throughout the film. As a result of the incident, Chen refused to stop practicing Falun Gong and was tortured and sent to re-education camps. Now living in the United States, Chen expresses his doubts about the presentation of the incident by the Chinese media. Loftus probes the story and argues that the incident was partially or fully staged. The main narrative arc of the film will be interesting to American viewers, especially since the incident received relatively little coverage in the United States.
The film is particularly relevant now, as Americans wonder whether to trust official reports on the coronavirus pandemic – whether from the White House or from the Chinese government. Don’t ask questions serves as a warning about the difficulty of uncovering the truth, especially when powerful central governments are interested in how the public perceives a given event.
As the film ended and the credits rolled, the theater disappeared and attendees were transported again – this time to a rooftop lounge overlooking a street and a large billboard on the adjacent building. . Everyone’s avatars remained silent, not because they were muted, but rather because they were still assimilating and considering the movie they had just watched.
Although tired after their marathon day of four screenings and four rounds of Q&A, Lothfus and Pedicelli both took the time to answer questions from those in attendance about their experiences in collecting the interviews and compiling the film. Lothfus commented that they had gone through all of their footage and started exploring possible avenues, that there were no simple answers to be had and the full truth might never be known.
However, he insisted that it was important that the issue not be left out.
Coming out of the Bigscreen VR software and coming back to the real world, I reflected on my experience in the virtual space where I had just spent more than two hours.
It wasn’t perfect. My sinuses were sore from the mask pressure (VR headsets fit snugly to prevent real-world ambient light from entering, and so the screens in front of the viewer’s eyes don’t move, which would lead to dizziness) having with the headphones on for so long, and with a current maximum audience size of 12, I barely felt like I was in a crowded theater. However, I was not trampled by other participants who tried to sit in their place or sit in a sticky, questionable substance.
Bigscreen VR will never replace the experience of sitting in a full theater on opening night, but it’s certainly a viable option – especially in an age of mandatory social distancing.
Bigscreen VR is free to download and available for Oculus Quest, Rift S and GO; Valve index; SteamVR; LIVE; and Windows Mixed Reality.