My First TIFF: POP VR gives virtual reality the platform it deserves

For the first time in its 41-year history, TIFF is including virtual reality as part of its festival programming

For many seasoned film critics, the Toronto International Film Festival is the busiest, most stressful time of year. But I’m not a film critic. I’m just a girl who loves movies and the odd star sighting. For me, TIFF is amazing and exciting, but it’s also chaotic, confusing and terribly difficult to go to. In fact, when I moved to Toronto last year around the same time as TIFF 2015, I couldn’t get tickets to any of the films I wanted to see after queuing online for an hour.

But this year, I have connections, namely media accreditation. So I’m putting that accreditation to good use and transporting you to the wacky world of TIFF. I’ve always wanted to know what a press conference with box-office stars is like and how you get into TIFF parties. What’s the deal with Festival Street, and what’s worth going to?

This is My First TIFF diary.

What’s the deal with VR at TIFF?


Michelle da Silva

For the first time in its 41-year history, TIFF is including virtual reality as part of its festival programming. Called POP VR, the five-film lineup comes on the heels of TIFF’s popular POP summer series, a VR exhibition that took place over three weekends.

I’m a big fan of virtual reality. And while I know a few film purists who’d rather not see VR invade cinemas, I’m intrigued by how VR shapes immersive, experiential storytelling. In the past year in Toronto, this scene has noticeably expanded rapidly. In addition to POP, TIFF featured a VR lounge at its annual digiPlaySpace exhibition. Another company, VIVID, billed itself as North America’s first VR cinema when it set up shop in the west side in July. So far, it seems both movie fans and tech geeks in Toronto are intrigued by what’s going on here.

So it’s smart of TIFF to add a VR component to this year’s festival. There are five films shown at POP VR, and they’re all a premiere of some sort (Canadian, international and world).

The first film viewers watch is called Ch’aak’ S’aago (Eagle Bone), a documentary by Indigenous activist and director Tracy Rector. The tech component is done by Seattle-based VR studio Mechanical Dreams. The film takes viewers to the Pacific Northwest, where a group of Native Americans reflect on the traditions of their ancestors. The entire film is accompanied by spoken word, and visually, the viewer is placed as a viewer at the centre of every scene.

The next film was my favourite of the bunch – an animated short called Invasion! It’s fun and light, and tells the story of two adorable white bunnies trying to save the Earth from aliens. As the viewer, you’re planted on a wintery landscape where a UFO hovers above you and saucer-eyed rabbits circle around you on ice. The six-minute piece is produced by California’s Baobab Studios and directed by Eric Darnell (who directed Madagascar and Antz). And if the voice narrating Invasion! sounds familiar, that’s because it’s Ethan Hawke.

The next two films are documentaries. Jafri by Michael Beets follows the unusual and inspiring story of an African-Australian man who protests weekly in the middle of one of Melbourne’s busiest intersections. Jafri Katagar campaigns about anti-racism, but this piece is about more than that. With VR, the viewer gets an intimate portrait of a person trying to understand his place in the world.

The other documentary is called Right To Pray and takes viewers to Trimbak, India, where a group of female activists fight for their right to enter an ancient shrine’s sanctum sanctorum. The VR quality on this piece by Khushboo Ranka is least effective – at times, there’s a black hexagonal shape in the field of view likely because it wasn’t picked up by the camera. However, the story of these women battling a 450-year tradition is compelling enough that the VR quality doesn’t necessarily matter.


Courtesy of TIFF

The final film in the program is a world premiere, and if you’re not a big Cirque du Soleil fan, well, you might not like it. Entitled KÀ The Battle Within, the piece is based on Cirque’s show of the same name currently running at the MGM Grand Las Vegas. Of course, the theatrics are impressive and so are the gravity-defying stunts, but as a film, it’s kind of boring. I’ve seen another Cirque VR piece in the past  – Inside The Box Of Kurios was part of TIFF’s first POP pop-up – and this one is similar, albeit slightly more frightening, mainly because actors who are clearly not Asian wear yellowface, or yellowface-inspired makeup throughout.

POP VR uses Samsung’s new Gear VR headset, and this is the first time I’ve tried it since they upgraded it over the summer. Previously, the Gear was most recognizable as the white headset, but Samsung has joined the majority of VR wearables and finally gone to the dark side. The headset is adjustable and comfortable, but be warned you’ll be leaving the TIFF Bell Lightbox with some noticeable indents on your cheekbones.

POP VR at TIFF takes place September 16 to 18 between 9 am and 9 pm and tickets are $38-$49. The five films run a total screening time of 45 minute and are shown every hour. All attendees are required to sign a waiver and must be age 13 and up. 

Get more TIFF 2016 here and the rest of my blog here. | @michdas

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