It’s a curious fact that technological advances in communication often put us back in touch with our more primitive past. In 1897, the Lumière brothers used their “cinématographe” device to film Ashanti tribal dances and traditions. Some of Thomas Edison’s first films were of Sioux Indian performances and Hopi snake dancers. British anthropologist Alfred Haddon filmed aboriginal people in New Guinea in 1898. Film was destined to become a necessary tool in the anthropologist’s playbook.
This tradition continues with virtual reality. All of the VR app stores offer short documentary glimpses into other ways of life, but some—such as Felix & Paul’s Nomads app (which dropped on May 10)—manage to capture traditional, forgotten, or fading cultures in unprecedented 360-degree stereoscopic 3D.
In “Nomads”, you sit in the fishing boats of the Sama-Bajau people in Borneo; you exist in the background of their stilt houses as a mother sings a song to her child to sleep. You can also experience the inside of a traditional yurt home of nomadic Mongolian herders as they prepare food or perform traditional instruments. You can observe the culture of the Maasai people of Kenya from inside their traditional dwelling. This collection of films—aside from being excellent virtual reality shorts in their own right—are decidedly anthropological in thrust, suggesting a way that virtual reality can establish itself as an academic tool.
But filmmaker Felix Lajeunesse (the titular Felix) told me he doesn’t pretend to be an anthropologist. Though, for the films, an anthropologist called Pegi Vail from the Culture and Media Program at NYU’s Department of Anthropology was enlisted as a cultural advisor. Lajeunesse doesn’t intend to analyze or categorize his subjects, as anthropology is wont to do. Instead, his goal is only to draw an emotional connection with the subjects—through which he can achieve what he calls “presence.”
“You are empowering the viewer to observe the world in itself”
To do this, his team went about being as minimal and subtle in their setup as could be. They told the subjects to think of the camera in the corner as a visiting relative. “We are trying as much as possible to remove ourselves as filmmakers and to create conditions for an encounter between the viewer and the subject,” Lajeunesse said. “Presence… breaks down the distance that exists between the reality of the viewer and the reality you are trying to depict on the screen. You are empowering the viewer to observe the world in itself—to experience the moment.”
It also happens that removing filmic artifice and being as minimally invasive in the scene as possible creates ideal conditions for producing a cultural document that could almost lay claim to being “objective”—something that would surely be of value to the anthropology world. In the “Nomad” films, you are situated in these locations while the subjects go about their lives. There is no director to grab your attention or shape an argument—you control your own view and are free to observe.
The lack of a “director” and other traditional cinematic techniques is the common thread running through all virtual reality film. But while this can be viewed as a hindrance to traditional narrative structure, it can be seen as a boon for academic documentation. It might be a far cry to say that the technical limitations of VR filmmaking can prevent a situation like the controversial 1963 anthropological documentary “Dead Birds,” where the filmmaker was accused of staging scenes, including a tribal war. But there is no doubt that the medium of VR lends itself more readily to quiet observation of a natural scene rather than toward an inherently argumentative narrative structure.
Certainly for Lajeunesse and his Nomad series, the films made with these techniques infuse what might have been a flat 2D anthropological document with “presence”, an empathetic connection to the subject—a crucial aspect of any cultural engagement that is surely worth studying and preserving.