February 02nd, 2022 | by Agnese Pietrobon

Review⎪Sundance New Frontier 2022: on bearing witness and taking responsibility

For the second year in a row, the 2022 Sundance Film Festival has gone all digital. Following a successful 2021 edition that saw the regular number of festival goers increase from 13,000 people to about 40,000, this second edition brought back the Spaceship as a futuristic location to digitally experience the immersive New Frontier lineup, the virtual Cinema House where artist spotlights took place and the online Film Party venue where ticket holders could gather and attend films premieres together.

Despite the need to postpone until a future edition the use of the innovative bio-digital bridge developed specifically to connect the in-person audience in Park City, where the physical festival would take place, with the online audience in the Spaceship, the New Frontier lineup was nonetheless a place to build the XR community and a fascinating foray into the power of immersive storytelling: 15 works representing the wide range of technologies that can be used to convey cinematic stories that address the issues of our time.

The common thread of this 2022 edition was ancestry and identity, explored in their various ramifications in several of the immersive productions presented at the festival.


Among them we find SUGA , a digital live performance on Mozilla Hubs that we discussed with one of its lead artists, performer Valencia James, in an interview soon to be published on XRMust: although the piece partially lacks the sense of immersivity that characterized other works in the lineup, it works towards the noble goal of using technology to elevate cultural heritage, through, in particular, a live dance performance - beautiful, vibrant, emotional - that shows what immersive technology can do to keep ritualistic practices alive. It also - through the innovative Volumetric Performance Toolbox - seeks to offer artists around the world a way to bring live performances back to their audiences. An opportunity that can bring great things to us, the audience, as well.

And indeed, this need for live experiences has inspired several artists at Sundance to explore the possibilities offered by today's technological tools.

Pieces like THE INSIDE WORLD by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy and COSMOGONY by Gilles Jobin together with Susana Panadés Diaz, Camilo de Martino and Tristan Siodlak, represent different approaches to actualizing this goal: THE INSIDE WORLD is a foray into NFTs, made by those who pioneered them, which leads the audience into a community-built mystery fiction “delivered via digital art collectibles” using the affordances offered by Discord. COSMOGONY brings us back to the stage - and to otherworldly creations - with a dance performance “motion captured in Geneva and projected into 3D narrative environments in real time”. A technically impeccable piece which we've discussed with Gilles Jobin. Visit us soon to read our article!


A common thread also connects our three favorite works at Sundance New Frontier 2022: THIS IS NOT A CEREMONY, CHILD OF EMPIRE and ON THE MORNING YOU WAKE.

All three works highlight how we, as viewers, are meant to be more than a passive audience enjoying a VR piece from the comfort of our homes and headsets.

We are explicitly asked to bear witness to social and cultural injustices such as those re-imagined by the powerful - and frankly enlightening - video 360 THIS IS NOT A CEREMONY, to take responsibility against a passive acceptance of things, and to become aware of the cultural appropriation we often fall into and the role we play in the lives (and rights!) of others.

A call to action and to duty that we discussed with activist and professor Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, co-creator of ON THE MORNING YOU WAKE (TO THE END OF THE WORLD) in an interview soon available on XRMust. But also a call for empathy, which is what drives the narrative of CHILD OF EMPIRE, as co-creators Erfan Saadati and Sparsh Ahuja tell us in this article.


But the potential of immersivity also lies in works that seek to become a means for audiences to discuss the challenges of our society and confront technological advances under the obligation of the most profoundly humanitarian needs: among them, a special mention goes to THE STATE OF GLOBAL PEACE, an immersive documentary by Daanish Masood Alavi “to engage a wider audience in a conversation around the increasing militarisation in the world, the loss of biodiversity, rising sea levels and increasing income inequality” (from the Sundance artist spotlight). A story in which you play a prime minister who will soon deliver a speech at a virtual UN General Assembly and will have to face some uncomfortable questions about human rights. An original premise for a story that we would have loved to see staged as a live performance.


And a final note - because immersive does not just mean “serious”, as a work like FLAT EARTH VR reminds us (and boy, do we love it when artists use technology to create something like that!) - but it often means “effective”.

Of everything we experienced at Sundance there was one specific moment that will stay with us forever. It was hearing the actual sound of a bird calling to its mate, who had just died in a storm. Sad in itself, but devastating when you realise that the bird who is calling is the last of its species, the only one left before their final extinction. This scene is in 32 SOUNDS, an immersive documentary and sensory experience from filmmaker Sam Green about the power of sound, and it’s one of the most haunting, impactful things I’ve ever experienced. I literally had to take my earbuds out because it became too painful for me to listen to it. Yet, it's in these simple, right to the point narrative choices that the true power of immersive storytelling often lies.


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