Every Friday afternoon, Jafri Katagar, a Ugandan refugee who moved to Australia in 2005, stands in silence outside a busy train station in Melbourne, holding up signs beseeching passersby: "End Racism Now."
In the year or so that he has been at it, Katagar has become something of a celebrity, dubbed by one local newspaper, "'the most hugged, most abused' man in Australia." But while it would take a day-long plane ride from Southern Ontario to meet him in person, audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival can get an intimate view of Katagar's activism this weekend, as part of TIFF's first-ever virtual-reality program to run during the annual festival.
In the eight-minute profile, Jafri, viewers wearing Samsung Gear VR headsets can take in Katagar's spartan surroundings by slowly rotating in one of only 10 chairs installed for the occasion in the smallest cinema at TIFF's Bell Lightbox headquarters. We can listen to him speak about how the death of his mother spurred him to leave Uganda, and we can watch him – apparently the only black man in all of rush-hour Melbourne – stand stoically as the crowd's bemusement turns slowly to affection.
Jafri is one of three documentaries in POP VR, which opens Friday and will have 12 one-hour showings a day through Sunday, alongside Ch'aak' S'aagi (Eagle Bone), a glimpse of indigenous life in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, and Right to Pray, a snapshot from the front lines of the battle for gender equality at the ancient Hindu temple of Trimbakeshwar in western India.
Given TIFF's reputation as a festival that programs the best of the world, "it was important for us to make sure the projects weren't all coming from North America and Western Europe," said Michael Lerman, who co-curated the VR program with the festival's artistic director, Cameron Bailey.
But TIFF is also known as a populist festival that smartly blends its earnest programming with thrilling entertainments for the masses, so POP VR includes two fictional pieces: Invasion!, a light-hearted six-minute animation directed by Eric Darnell (the Madagascar franchise) about a bunny who does battle against a pair of aliens; and KÀ The Battle Within, the world premiere of a noisy and frenetic Cirque du Soleil production shot by the hot Montreal VR studio Felix & Paul.
This weekend's program follows up on a series of three temporary (a.k.a. pop-up) VR exhibitions curated by TIFF over the summer, including an edition that focused on experiences that sought to provoke empathy, such as a visit to a refugee camp in Jordan and another that took people into a solitary confinement cell in the United States.
But mounting the current edition of POP VR during TIFF's flagship fest, "we're very much focusing on storytelling," said Lerman, who also programmed the festival's first foray into television last year. "A lot of what we do as curators here is look at the new forms of storytelling, and our interest in getting into VR in the festival was very synonymous with the idea of: How are artists using this medium to tell a story?"
Lerman said the five pieces were selected from about 50 or 60 submissions: a healthy collection to choose from, but nothing nearing the thousands of films sent over TIFF's transom every year in hopes of inclusion in the main program. "What feels like a boom right now is still the infancy of the boom," he noted.
That may be why the five projects in POP VR represent such a range – of formalistic approaches, as well as subject matter. At such an early point in the evolution of the medium, "You're exploring: is the right apparatus to use this a game? Is the right apparatus a documentary? I don't think there is one right answer to that question."