Empathy Device

The first-ever SIFFX arrives.

For this story about SIFFX, the virtual reality component of the Seattle International Film Festival, I won’t ask you to imagine a digital, three-dimensional world accessed through a cyberpunk headset. Like a mushroom trip or lucid dream, the effect of VR is impossible to conceive if you haven’t been there already.

Instead consider that in this world—the one we’re sharing now—the function of art is to engender interpersonal empathy. Consider that technology broadens our access to art and enhances its ability to engender empathy. Art and media connect us to one another, opening channels to convey shared experiences. From cave paintings to canvas to film to TV to the Internet to…

“The next level after the next level,” is how Sandy Cioffi describes VR. Cioffi, a veteran documentary filmmaker and media activist, is the producer behind SIFFX, which makes its debut during this year’s film festival with four days and nights of programming at the Pacific Science Center, June 2–5.

“Is it possible that our urge to create this technology is an evolutionary one?” Cioffi asks. “That we’re creating something that shows up just in time to change the extent to which we can take care of each other? Are we at a critical crossroads to shift our urges to a more compassionate caretaking?”

Cioffi says the word “festival” doesn’t precisely define SIFFX; it’s more a “public inquiry.” The intention, she believes, is to determine how art and activism figure into the development of a technology that will most assuredly be exploited for entertainment purposes and financial gain. With human rights as a starting point even our basest inclinations can be put to progressive purposes.

“We know that people are gonna crank out all kinds of pornographic VR,” she says. “The more interesting question becomes, what potential does it have for pleasure and delight? What if this is one of the most powerful, truly pleasurable activities you experience with someone, that gives you solace and comfort?”

These questions are sparked by new advances in technology, which include VR,  360-degree film and augmented reality, and the films, art works and video games currently being made with it. Among the pieces showing at SIFFX, all are short films—because the format requires huge amounts of data storage—and most are documentaries—because activism is at the heart of the technology.

The event’s keynote speaker is Nonny de la Peña, an acclaimed journalist and filmmaker whose first piece, 2012’s Hunger in Los Angeles, recreated a day at a food line in downtown LA. Her intern at the time was a teenaged engineer named Palmer Luckey, who created a prototype headset for viewing the film. Luckey went on to develop that headset into the device known as Oculus Rift, the VR technology Facebook bought last year for some $2 billion. Most of de la Peña’s subsequent work has sought to immerse the viewer into the heart of a dire situation like a Syrian refugee camp or domestic violence call. The first retrospective of her work will be available to view in its own gallery. A separate gallery will host a handful of other VR films for headset viewings.

Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals have featured VR media before but with limited success in terms of access; at SIFFX Cioffi hopes to minimize wait time and maximize viewership with a reservation and ticket system. Additionally, the Laser Dome will be utilized to screen 360-degree films, a first-ever feat enabled by advances in projection technology that require $20,000 projectors to properly execute.

“My love for the Dome is everything from the most high-minded desire to create empathy all the way to the pure delight in laying there and having dolphins swim over your head,” she says.

Cioffi describes a job she had in 1998, shooting video during the Good Friday Peace Accords in Northern Ireland, as “a human rights activity”—documentation rather than documentary. Today, she imagines applying the depth of world-building, storytelling and animation in the gaming industry and the immersive power of VR to similar endeavors.

“I wanna see what a group of artists and gamers would make if they applied those things to how we’re dealing with the human rights questions on our own border. Those are the people at this festival and that’s the work we’re showcasing.”