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The Spirit Buffalo approaches the fire at the center of the Arbour in This Is Not a Ceremony. Niitsitapi writer and director Ahnahktsipiitaa (Colin Van Loon) transports us directly into another realm, where past, present and future are one.NFB

It is not a little ironic that the most exciting element of a virtual film festival is its virtual-reality component – doubly so, given that the relative scarcity of at-home VR technology demands that audiences experience the projects at a physical event – say, an in-person film festival – where headsets and in-person guidance are plentiful.

But such is the artistic paradox facing Indigenous Canadian filmmaker Ahnahktsipiitaa (Colin Van Loon), who is debuting his cinematic VR project This Is Not a Ceremony at this week’s Sundance Film Festival – an event that was scheduled to run in-person in Park City, Utah, until Omicron forced a last-minute pivot to, ahem, virtual screenings.

How does that work, practically speaking, for audiences looking to experience This Is Not a Ceremony? Well, any Sundance pass holder can visit the festival’s digital “Spaceship” viewing room if they own a Quest or Quest 2 VR headset. (And there are plans via the National Film Board to tour the project across Canada in the coming year.) Still, Ahnahktsipiitaa, who is from the Piikani Nation and grew up in Lethbridge, Alta., admits that accessibility in regards to This Is Not a Ceremony, and all VR content, is an in-the-works issue.

“Of course I want as many people as possible to see the film, but VR adoption is coming up. I think over Christmas, the Oculus app was the most downloaded app in the App Store, so lots of people are getting these sets,” says the Niitsitapi artist, who, like his fellow Sundance filmmakers, had originally planned to debut his work in the thick of the buzzy Park City action. “But the power of presence that VR affords was a really conscious choice. This is a work that needed to be made this way.”

Ahnahktsipiitaa, who is from the Piikani Nation and grew up in Lethbridge, Alta., admits that accessibility in regards to This Is Not a Ceremony, and all VR content, is an in-the-works issue. Luis Alvarez /Courtesy of NFB

At just over 20 minutes in length, This Is Not a Ceremony deliberately defies easy definition. It is part documentary, part performance art, part memory play and completely intense and unforgettable. At the film’s start, audiences are greeted by two Indigenous “trickster” poets (Taran Kootenhayoo and Tawahum Bige) and the spirit of a buffalo, who all serve as guides to two tales of real-life injustice: the childhood abuse faced by the young Adam North Peigan (today head of Sixties Scoop Indigenous Society of Alberta), and the case of Brian Sinclair, whose 2008 death after being left for 34 hours in a Winnipeg ER sparked an uproar regarding systemic racism in Canada’s health care system.

The men’s stories are extraordinarily painful to recount, and might risk driving away general audiences were they to be presented in traditional documentary form. Yet Ahnahktsipiitaa’s 360-degree immersive-video environment toggles with expectations and experiences. If, as Roger Ebert once said, movies are “like a machine that generates empathy,” then VR might be an empathy machine rewired as a next-generation model. This Is Not a Ceremony doesn’t simply present two victim’s stories: it places you inside of them, asking you to reconsider what the art of storytelling can offer.

“We were hoping it would be an intense experience as the stories themselves are particularly intense,” says Ahnahktsipiitaa, who spent four years on the production, when he wasn’t working his day job as the operations manager for the Vancouver-based Indigenous Matriarchs 4 AR/VR media lab. “Watching it with a headset, you get a sense of the size and scale of the stories, and the act of witnessing. The responsibility of being a witness.”

This Is Not a Ceremony is one of a handful of VR or VR-focused projects showcased at this year’s Sundance, including British director Joe Hunting’s We Met in Virtual Reality, the first doc filmed entirely within virtual environments. The festival’s last-minute digital pivot, though, only underlines the tensions that exist between the traditional medium that Sundance built its name on, the way audiences experience stories and how those stories are produced and exhibited. If the physical act of moviegoing continues to be threatened, and if virtual reality is indeed the next step of filmmaking – if, as Mark Zuckerberg hopes, we’re all destined for the metaverse – is there not a downside to a future spent alone in our heads-slash-headsets?

“VR is, in itself, very social. At some festivals, there are these group-watching experiences, where all the devices are triggered to start at the same time. It becomes very much like going to the theatre traditionally,” says Ahnahktsipiitaa. “I’m always encouraging people I collaborate with to consider the tremendous potential here with bringing people closer to the story.”

The director quickly recounts an experience he had when he first started to develop This Is Not a Ceremony: He was watching a VR project from fellow Canadian filmmaker Lisa Jackson, and got to a part where the viewer’s POV is placed on a rooftop. With about six degrees of movement, Ahnahktsipiitaa got “this kind of queasy feeling” that he couldn’t shake, even though he was in fact stationary.

“If you’re going to watch a scary movie at a theatre or on TV, when a monster jumps out, you might jump and get scared. But after a while, that effect will wear off because you know something is going to pop out. But with VR, this never happens. Any time I looked over the edge of that roof, nothing in my mind could tell my body that this was just in the VR headset. My body reacted each and every time. That’s where the wealth of potential is for filmmakers, and for audiences.”

At just over 20 minutes in length, This Is Not a Ceremony is part documentary, part performance art, part memory play and completely intense and unforgettable.NFB

Canadians at Sundance

Canadian productions at this year’s virtual Sundance include This is Not a Ceremony and these two feature films:

Babysitter: A Canada/France co-production, director Monia Chokri’s dark-comedy thriller focuses on a mysterious babysitter whose presence unsettles a couple on the brink. Expect the film to be released in Quebec later this year.

Framing Agnes: In this Canada/U.S. co-production, documentarian Chase Joynt looks at the life of a transgender woman whose involvement in Harold Garfinkel’s landmark 1960s work at UCLA changed the course of gender-health research. A Canadian festival run later this fall is a good bet.

Fire of Love and Midwives: Canadians are also out in force in the documentary field: Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love is a Canadian/U.S. co-production following two volcano scientists that has already been picked up by National Geographic Documentary in one of Sundance’s buzziest deals, while the Canada/Germany/Myanmar co-production Midwives follows the action inside a Myanmar medical centre.

Bump: This comedic short film from Canadian writer-director Maziyar Khatam follows one young man’s “unwillingness to let go of a trivial encounter.”

Best of the Fest, So Far

Halfway through Sundance’s 2022 edition, there have yet to be any massive deals (like the US$25-million Apple TV+ doled out last year for CODA) or across-the-board hits (like last year’s Summer of Soul). So far, potential breakouts, like Lena Dunham’s Sharp Stick and Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth, have proven to be puzzling, somewhat polarizing, projects.

But there is respectful acclaim for the memorable and ultimately heartbreaking sci-fi drama After Yang starring Colin Farrell and Jodie-Turner Smith, the propulsive Kanye West documentary Jeen-Yuhs, and the conversation-starting doc We Need to Talk About Cosby. But given that those three films came into the festival with distribution already attached (A24, Netflix and Showtime, respectively), there hasn’t been any breakout deal that can cement Sundance’s reputation as a true virtual launching pad. At least, not yet.

The Sundance Film Festival runs through Jan. 30.

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