Is virtual reality the next frontier for Arab cinema?

A newly added section, which featured international experts, aimed to educate industry agents on how to effectively utilise new digital effects in production.
Sunday 03/11/2019
An audience member trying VR equipment. (Carthage Digital)
Experiencing new technology firsthand. An audience member trying VR equipment. (Carthage Digital)

TUNIS - Imagine sharing the experiences of the protagonist in the film you are watching. As the character struggles to remain alive in a dramatic war-time battle or go through an adventure on the other side of the world, you follow along the same path, feeling sensations and emotions that make it real.

Far-fetched as it sounds, this experience could soon be possible via virtual reality cinema, a subject discussed at the Carthage Film Festival’s Carthage Digital panels and workshops.

The newly added section, which featured international experts on cutting-edge techniques for the cinema industry, aimed to educate industry agents on how to effectively utilise new digital effects in production.

Chiraz Latiri, director of Tunisia’s National Centre for Cinema and Image and founder of Carthage Digital, said new technology could revolutionise the cinema industry without sacrificing artistic expression.

“This section aims to expose and tackle digital aspects and dimensions of the digital world that we live in today in relation to cinema,” Latiri said. “While there was resistance from the sector… I want to remind (critics) that this aims to rejuvenate the sector but does not make it like video games.”

There has been criticism that virtual reality cinema threatened to comprise the artistic integrity of filmmaking but Latiri argued that it could enhance the industry.

“Digital technologies are here to serve cinema, not denigrate it,” Latiri said. “We want to show there is a structure in Tunisian labs to execute these techniques. We want to show we can produce visual effects and use these digital techniques here in our labs.

“Even the late director of the festival, Nejib Ayed, had fears regarding this section but bit by bit he began to become supportive and convinced.”

“In all cinema festivals, today, there are sections for [virtual reality] VR. In the last edition of Cannes, it was obvious how this section became fundamental to the cinema industry, which is why we decided to launch the first edition. The idea was to introduce digital techniques and popularise them in the Tunisian cinema industry,” Latiri said.

The Carthage Film Festival included panel discussions on visual effect techniques, African animation, immersive technologies in the cinema industry and virtual films.

Tunisian filmmaker Nejib Belkadhi, who was a panellist, said new visual effects would inevitably be used but it is the director’s vision that determines whether it enhances the artistic value.

“I believe that the use of visual effects in movies… does not make it less artistic,” said Belkadhi. “It does not make it mediocre. The issue is that Hollywood films — not all of them — gave an ill-reputed model, almost a formatted version of the movie. Many of these are abusing the use of visual effects which, in my opinion, is the source of this bad reputation for visual effects.”

“I think creativity can determine the way we view visual effects,” he added. “These visual effects allowed me to execute my vision of my film ‘Bastardo.’ It helped me to show the poetic side of a particular scene. Using VFX in a subtle way enlarges the imagination of the film director.”

Slim Larnaout, a producer who specialises in visual effects, pointed out that new techniques allow screenwriters to be more imaginative with their stories.

At another discussion, Mohamed Beyoud, director of the International Animation film Festival of Meknes, argued that animation is indispensable to cinema. Representatives of African animation studios shared expertise with participants.

There was considerable debate regarding the use of virtual reality in cinema. Zied Meddeb Hamrouni, a multidisciplinary artist who researches virtual reality cinema, said the genre has the potential to reshape viewers’ experiences in a profound way.

“New media have radically changed the industry,” he said. “We should ask ourselves what it could do for entertainment. What we seek when watching films is empathy. This is the most important element of storytelling.

“In cinema we identify with the protagonists and we see the world from their point of view but, in VR, we are experiencing the story in their shoes, which creates a deeper connection.”

He added: “The second important purpose of implementing VR in cinema is to strengthen cinema accessibility everywhere. It is not a given that we have a movie theatre in all places but, with VR, we don’t need a big screen and a theatre. VR can be taken to people anywhere they are. It can substitute the idea of a space designated for cinema.”

The cost of implementing the new technology is prohibitive. To move forward, Philippe Reynaert, director of the Wallimage regional film fund, stressed the importance of building connections between entrepreneurs and those in the film industry. Ouafa Belgacem, who specialises in financial services in the culture sector, added that the industry needs to embrace new techniques but should not rely only on state funding.

“We have the responsibility to explore other tools of investment in the world. Using digital techniques means that there is a new scene to explore in terms of funding,” said Belgacem.

The festival set up a virtual reality lab on Tunis’s main boulevard, where members of the public experienced the new technology firsthand.