Shaun Gladwell calls virtual reality "an empathy machine" for the way it can immerse viewers in characters' lives much more than a traditional film.

The acclaimed Australian artist is using his latest work in the format, Storm Riders, to show the lives of two young Muslim women who love skateboarding. It's a defiant expression of their individuality after growing up with bullying and prejudice in London.

Director Shaun Gladwell with Channee Shah (left) and Farhana Hussain who appear in the film Storm Surfers at Bondi Beach.

Photo: Photo: Ashley Mar/SBS, BADFAITH and Anna Schwarz Gallery

And in keeping with his belief in virtual reality, Gladwell has a unique suggestion for an interview about the film and the VR program he has co-curated at the 65th Sydney Film Festival, which opens with the New Zealand comedy The Breaker Upperers on Wednesday night.

Both Gladwell in London and this reporter in Sydney will wear virtual reality headsets and meet in what's called the metaverse.

Virtual reality interview between London-based video artist Shaun Gladwell, with a wooden puppet as an avatar, and reporter Garry Maddox in Sydney.

Photo: Screenshot


Inside a Mexican-themed online world, we will both be represented by avatars: Gladwell will be a wooden puppet ("old school Pinocchio" he calls it) and his team has chosen a futuristic cyborg crossed with a Power Ranger for me. And a – virtually – unique experience it turns out to be.

After we both arrive in a colourful Day of the Dead landscape and digitally shake hands – as other avatars zip around – Gladwell explains why he believes VR is the future.

"It's interesting in terms of just the possibilities on a whole lot of levels," he says. "Not only … looking at what happens visually with a story but also the idea that you can just change people's perspective and somehow embody a space and a place."

Gladwell, who has had his virtual reality works acquired by the National Gallery of Australia and screen at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, wanted to help Chadnee Shah and Farhana Hussain tell their stories after one approached him for advice as he skateboarded in a London park.

"What unfolded was a friendship and at some point during those first few months it seemed possible that we could make a work together," he says. That project delves into the "Islamophobia" they faced after the terrorist attacks in England last year.

Gladwell gave the duo small VR cameras so they could film their lives, firstly in London then on a visit to Sydney to skate at Bondi Beach, where he shot the acclaimed video Storm Sequence in 2000.

While some see VR as having a future as a shared experience in cinemas as it evolves, Gladwell is happy with viewers wearing headsets for an individual experience.

"I do like the idea that these headsets that we're wearing can lock us into a beautiful, sometimes terrifying solitary experience and that can be used creatively," he says.

On a rainy Sydney night, digital Mexico is a colourfully diverting place to meet a filmmaker.

Shaun Gladwell with Chadnee Shah (left) and Farhana Hussain at Bondi Beach during filming for Storm Surfers.

Photo: Jenny Song Schmidt/SBS, BADFAITH and Anna Schwarz Gallery

The VR program at the festival, which Gladwell has curated with Leo Faber, includes shorts on Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs, NASA astronaut training, Greenland's melting glaciers, Aboriginal dances, Yazidi women fighting ISIS and a game of backyard cricket at night.

The Sydney Film Festival's 20 hottest tickets, Arts, page 12.

Garry Maddox

Garry Maddox is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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