Traveling While Black is the most powerful piece of virtual reality that I’ve ever seen. Director Roger Ross Williams in collaboration with Felix & Paul Studios and co-director Ayesha Nadarajah were able to capture a powerful story of the Green Book through the lens of Ben’s Chilli Bowl restaurant in Washington D.C., which has served as a refuge for the African American community for over 60 years.
They were able to tell the story of this place, but also create a very specific context of conversations that allows you to listen into the sharing of deep truths and direct experiences of what it means to be black in America. Some of these conversations only happen within the context of a safe container and having enough people with a shared experience together. VR is able to give you an inside seat for some of these conversations that would otherwise be inaccessible for most people. So this experience has facilitated the sharing grief and trauma that’s allowed for a level of emotional catharsis throughout screenings at Sundance New Frontier. As such, it’s served as a sort of healing ritual by providing access to these types of restorative practices of gathering people to be in conversation about their shared experiences, and it’s starting to reveal some of the deeper potentials of immersive documentary as a transformative artistic medium.
I had a chance to talk with Academy-award winning director Roger Ross Williams at Sundance where he shared his journey of creating Traveling While Black, how it received support from Tribeca, Sundance, Oculus the New York Times, and the MacArthur Foundation, the overwhelming emotional reactions that this piece was receiving at Sundance, and his own peak emotional experiences of discovering the power of the virtual reality medium throughout the production of this story. Williams is an elected member of the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for documentary, and so he’s a leader in the larger field of documentary and it’s likely that Traveling While Black will serve as a turning point to get more documentary filmmakers interested in exploring the new immersive storytelling potentials of virtual reality.
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Here’s a teaser trailer for Traveling While Black.
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