Review: We Met in Virtual Reality
by David Katz
- Young debuting filmmaker Joe Hunting signs off on the first feature documentary filmed entirely inside ‘social VR’ and your login details are required
This film is something of a typical environmental and sociological study, that you might see at any documentary festival or even on broadcast TV, except for the modishness of what it chooses to represent. Subjects – human subjects, sort of – are carefully cast and observed over time, except they might also have moose horns along with comically large breasts.
But what was once the preserve of a niche, endearingly nerdy subset, is getting nervily close to the mainstream, after Facebook’s relaunch as 'Meta,' and so young British filmmaker Joe Hunting’s Sundance competition-premiering We Met in Virtual Reality [+see also:
film profile] arrives right on cue. Akin to 90 minutes of what you’d call uninterrupted ‘screen time,’ it’s a necessarily hermetic film, never venturing outside the confines of the VRChat app, although Hunting’s ability to gather raw observational footage from this is quite a technical feat. Whilst it provides an insight into the odd rituals and participants of this world, you still never quite feel you’re getting the full story: we perceive an oddly utopian-Kumbaya world here, quite jarring for anyone who’s spent time interacting with professional acquaintances and strangers on an online platform.
Hunting is sensitive and alert, though, to the individuals (only visible through 3D avatars, of course) who rely upon and moderate spaces like this: their voices and identities are privileged, although the risk of an ‘unreliable narrator’ always hovers. The most convincing strand is that of Jenny’s, a young woman with an auditory processing disorder, who is both learning and instructing in ASL at the ‘Helping Hands’ community (designed to look like a virtual ‘college,’ with a lecture hall and common room). The dance instructors, whose environments are more like the spangly-designed dance routine arcade and console games, have more amusing usernames: DustBunny & Toaster in one strand, and DragonHeart & IsYourBoi. Both are 'couples,' who’ve made ostensible romantic connections on the platform, using it to bond whilst separated by national borders, and even oceans in the latter’s case. Their part of the VR patch - the red light district, almost - is also where the zanier bod-mod accoutrements of ballooning chests and Star Trek-alike animal-human hybrids come to the fore.
In Jenny’s strand, we’re sympathetic to how this glitchy and poor substitute for the ‘real’ world is a salve to her issues: a therapeutic ‘meta’-space where flesh-and-blood and tech are fused in harmony - where the new industrialist class of Zuckerberg and Musk can see their toys having real social impact. But even through his editing - with sharp, deadpan cuts onto what are essentially the DOOM space marine and an anime elf snuggling arm-in-arm in a restaurant booth - Hunting recognises the absurdity of the two couples he follows, putting them on display for the audience to scrutinise (and probably dismiss).
Whilst this doc has its relevance, in that our lockdown-era virtual interactions on Zoom and Twitter are cousins to what’s shown here, it also feels like a provisional, ‘novelty’ future: a possible path, like a cardboard display on a trade show floor. And it feels like only half the story, too: what’s missing is the shift from colour back to b&w, the human battery pod giving life to this Matrix-like mirage.
We Met in Virtual Reality is a production of the UK and USA, presented by Field of Vision, in association with Cinetic Media. It was also produced by XTR.
(Translated from Spanish)
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