Virtual reality (VR) provides us with the ultimate form of escape. I’ve used VR to swim with sharks, sit courtside at an NBA game, and walk on the moon.
The wonders of VR are limited only by the scope of creators’ imaginations. However, this reality-bending technology is at its most profound when it examines meaningful human encounters.
This Is Not A Ceremony is a new cinematic VR experience from filmmaker Ahnahktsipiitaa (Colin Van Loon). This immersive documentary-style short makes its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this week. The experimental piece recounts the stories of two Indigenous men who faced systemic racism.
What separates This Is Not A Ceremony from similar documentaries is how Ahnahktsipiitaa literally pulls the viewer inside the story. The experience occurs from a first-person perspective, with the story’s narrators speaking directly to you. Unlike a traditional doc, you’re not watching talking heads chatting on a screen; you’re at the centre of a conversation – albeit one-way.
I could go on about the piece’s bold visuals, absorbing sound effects, and surreal storytelling style, but I would be doing it a disservice. Much like understanding The Matrix, no one can tell you what experiencing This Is Not A Ceremony is like. One must try it for themselves.
What I can tell you is how the piece’s unique perspective showcases how VR brings new depths and meaning to documentary storytelling.
You don’t watch This Is Not A Ceremony so much as you live through it. Ahnahktsipiitaa forces viewers to bear the weight of Indigenous trauma. There’s no tuning out or looking away because your presence is central to the narrative. People look you in the eye as they share their harrowing accounts. You’re also visually transported deep into each tale as though you’re reliving the past.
This storytelling method offers much more than run-of-the-mill VR gimmicks. Ahnahktsipiitaa doesn’t rely on flashy visuals and disorienting camera placement to hold your attention. Instead, he keeps things simple and grounded, using this immersive medium as the ultimate empathy engine.
When I think about This Is Not A Ceremony, I don’t recall sitting on my couch staring at my TV screen the same way I do when I remember watching Dune or Yellowjackets – even though that’s where I sat down and experienced the piece.
Instead, I remember this VR encounter like an actual lived experience. Even though I was physically sitting on my couch, I recall standing in the rooms where the story occurs, watching events unfold before my eyes. It’s as though these tragic tales were plucked from someone else’s memories and implanted inside my mind. You can’t match this sense of immersion going to the cinema or streaming documentaries on Netflix.
This Is Not A Ceremony is a singular experience that signals this fledgling medium’s rapturous potential. If Ahnahktsipiitaa’s work here is any indication of what’s in store, the most profound VR experience’s won’t just blow our minds; they’ll profoundly change them.