The Topanga Film Institute is playing a part in opening our minds to the changing landscapes of immersive storytelling.
Thirteen years ago, in the back garden of Urs and Sara Baur’s home in Topanga, California, the inaugural ‘Topanga Film Festival’ was a small-scale romantic event. Comfortably nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains, locals gathered on a balmy spring evening in front of the 16x8 foot wooden screen built by a family friend of the Baurs. Devon and Tess, their daughters, wove their way through the patchwork of blankets on the lawn selling popcorn to the audience. Over the course of the evening, the community watched a series of films which were then adjudicated by a panel of judges (that year including Kelly Carlin, author of A Carlin Home Companion: Growing up with George). Little did they know that they were giving life to an annual event that would grow in success for many years to come.
Flash forward to 2017 and the festival has moved from a back garden to the grounds of Redwood, a once opulent estate and now the beautifully re-imagined home of Topanga’s first elementary school The three-day-long event presents not only screenings of international films but open table discussions, lectures and an impressive programming of immersive VR storytelling.
Now hereditarily fronted by Devon Baur as Director, the festival’s theme has evolved to be ‘Content as Catalyst for Conversation’. I met up with Devon and producers Shauna Farrell and Miranda Robin to learn more about their visions for the message of the festival. Shauna, the former Events Coordinator for the Screen Directors Guild of Ireland, tells me that they all “…see storytelling as a way of reflecting society and themes back on ourselves.” She goes on to explain what is essentially the basis of their ethos; “…collectively listening, watching or being immersed in a story allows us to experience a situation we may never find ourselves in and therefore empathize or understand in a different way. We can then collaborate our collective wisdom to pave new paths forward together.”
When I asked Devon about the role VR played in this aspect of the festival, she explained that it was very important to them that immersive storytelling was integrated alongside cinema and performance to provide people with the environment to compare how stories are beginning to be told in new ways and from alternate viewpoints. For example, ‘EWA’ is a piece by Makropol in which you experience the story through the memories of a young girl Ewa. ‘Through the eyes of Ewa, you will access a world you have never seen before. You will be born as Ewa, you will grow up as Ewa, and as Ewa you will fight to free yourself.’ In a completely contrasting style, ‘The Fight for Falluja’ by Ben C Solomun allowed viewers to experience, firsthand, the battles that Iraqi forces endured to retake Falluja from ISIS this June. This was the first time that a VR camera had been brought into an active war zone and made for an extremely immersive and intense experience for the participant. On a more artistic note, our very own Hydro Studios provided a Tiltbrush installation at this year’s festival. Berlin based artist Johannes Huntenburg designed a TFF exclusive exhibition in virtual space with opportunity for the audience to collaborate. Participants had the opportunity to paint in mid-air and create a 360 degree + 3 dimensional collective art exhibition.
Like the festivals it was modelled on, Sundance and Tribeca, TFF recently decided to branch into year-round activities, thus establishing the Topanga Film Institute. One of TFI’s first initiatives was to create CoLab, a co-working space for creators, thinkers and storytellers to collaborate, learn, develop and above all, create. Adding to this already fertile ground, the Institute is also providing an ongoing bigger vision through their monthly ‘TFI First Fridays’ film screenings and training workshops. The aim is to create as rich an experience as possible and provoke conversation.
Since taking over as Director of TFI, Devon Baur has also taken on an exciting role as the Project Manager for Directors Milica Zec and Winslow Porter's much lauded VR experience ‘Tree’. Devon recently travelled to New York to present Tree at Tribeca Film Festival and will be travelling to Cannes next week to show it there. She recounted her experiences in the world of VR and in general what she believes it adds to storytelling compared to traditional cinema; ‘I think it adds an element of play, playfulness. I watch people’s jaws literally drop as they’re engaging with these experiences. They’re laughing, audibly responding… it's as if being transported into this world that their inhibitions are removed, the only response that’s important to them is their own. They’re not influenced by the reactions of an audience around them."
Baur compares this to the anecdote of the time a train came hurtling towards an audience on a film screen and the viewers allegedly ran out of the cinema; ‘That’s where we are now with VR and I really appreciate every time I see new work achieving this in a different way. It’s exciting, and there’s still so much we don’t know and so much to be explored.’ She sums this up by recounting a quote from Johann Knattrup Jensen, a VR director who spoke on one of the festival’s panels this year; ‘I was forever looking back upon the greats of the filmmaking world and was constantly thinking, “How can I ever make anything new?” Just on time VR came along.’ Baur has found herself steeped in this emerging world and sees it as being ample opportunity to scout out the newest and most inventive VR pieces to bring back to the festival in Topanga.
Baur quotes Alan Watts, the great British philosopher. He sees our position in the world as this: ‘Wherever you are, whoever you are, whatever you are, you’re in the middle. Your senses extend a certain direction… In all directions. And this therefore gives you the impression of being in the middle. Because the definition of a person is where you look from.’ The world of Virtual Reality is the first medium of storytelling whereby we can exponentially explore any viewpoint of any living organism in the world and by the sounds of it, forward-thinking festivals like the Topanga Film Festival are beginning to scratch the surface.