'IOPU' (Image: Will Afonczenko)

The Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) may have been unable to return to city cinemas this year, but the conditions proved ideal for other elements of the event.

The inaugural MIFF XR program will come to a close on Sunday, having been available for free globally since August 7.

Encompassing augmented reality and virtual reality, the films offered a mix of emergent 360° and interactive filmmaking that required no headset or special tech to be viewed.

There was also an accompanying public online XR space, where audiences could meet, gather, mingle and discuss their experiences.

The lineup included Iopu Auva’a and Aaron Wilson’s IOPU, which follows a queer Samoan-Australian performer who is about to take the stage at a resplendent theatre.

Moment and memory blend to offer insights into a Samoan rite of passage, as well as themes of alienation, acceptance, and finding kinship.

Wilson told IF MIFF XR provided the ideal escape for audiences.

“It’s good timing because we’re at home and we want to still be able to watch something that is different,” he said.

“We’ve got lots of streaming platforms we can watch films on but this gives you something different to see but also a different form of interactivity. The great thing about cinema is the communal experience where you can feel and see how someone reacts to something and that discussion is almost immediate, but the portal that MIFF has created for XR is the same in the sense you can talk to people in that virtual space and get their thoughts on the project straight away, or they can zip over and see it if they haven’t and you can have a conversation with them.”

Wilson and Auva’a began work on IOPU last October after receiving a funding grant via the nationwide Unreal Engine Real-Time Short Film Challenge.

They had initially planned to film part of the project in Samoa, but the COVID situation meant the month-long production was confined to Melbourne, leading to the virtual creation of the Polynesian environment in between shooting at the city’s Athenaeum Theatre.

Wilson said the 360 VR process had been enlightening for everyone involved.

“The Unreal people hadn’t done 360 in this way so it was all very new for them,” he said.

“All the VFX artists were learning, and I was also learning.

“We were trying new things to tell a story that had the right feeling and gave you a sense of immersion in a world that felt real, but at the same time was almost like a dream with fragmentations of memory.”

IOPU is the first in a potential trilogy of films that Wilson has planned for the 360 VR space.

He said it was always the plan to explore the concept across different cultures.

“I kind of wanted to tell my story, but also a story that was symbolic of other people’s journeys through a means that allowed people to supplant their own expectations but at the same time focussed on some form of ritual and tradition that looked cinematic in a VR 360 world,” he said.

“One’s an Indigenous Australian story, one is an Indonesian story, and one is a Samoan story.

“The idea would be to put them into an installation where you can view all three concurrently, or you can choose one of them.”

MIFF XR will run nationally until August 22.

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