Container is a hyperreal 180-degree spatial art installation that explores modern day slavery. Visual artist/visual anthropologist Meghna Singh and documentary filmmaker Simon Wood utilize the shipping container as consistent piece of architecture across space and time to create a spatial metaphor to viscerally connect the products shipped in these containers with the oppression and exploited human labor that’s invisible to consumers.
Container is a provocative & stylized piece of immersive storytelling that has created some visceral scenes of slavery that are deeply lodged into my memory. It pushes forward the grammar of immersive storytelling by combining art installation, history, theater, and 180-degree video to create a sort of poetic spatial anthropology that makes associative connections in an embodied and dreamlike fashion. The piece designed to implicate the audience into reflecting on how we may be unwittingly participating in systems of modern-day slavery, and the artists hope to take it to different film festivals around the world and create shipping container installations and showings at port cities involved in slave trade.
The piece is situated within the context of the port city of Cape Town, South Africa, but the piece also doesn’t have spoken words and so it’s generalizable to a global context.
I had a chance to talk remotely with co-directors Meghna Singh and documentary filmmaker Simon Wood to talk about their 4-year journey of producing this piece during it’s World Premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
Container is one of the more evocative pieces of 180 or 360-degree video I’ve seen this year, and it is currently available at the Venice VR Expanded until September 19th.
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[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. So continuing on my coverage of the Venice VR Expanded 2021, today's episode is about Container, which explores modern day slavery and this really striking, hyper realistic, 180 degree video that is really stylized, but also doing some really interesting things in terms of using spatial metaphors to make connections around this chain of modern day slavery. So this piece is by Meghna Singh and Samin Wood, and I had a chance to talk to them about it on Monday, September 6th, 2021. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:00:50.297] Meghna Singh: I'm Meghna Singh. I'm a visual artist and I have a doctorate in visual anthropology, focusing on issues of migration. specifically, and the visual arts. I've mostly worked with video installations. This is my first venture into virtual reality. So I'm not an expert VR person, but a lot of experience in video installations. And yeah, this is my first collaboration with Simon Wood, who's a director.
[00:01:21.561] Simon Wood: So I'm Simon, I'm a film director based in Cape Town, South Africa, and I primarily made documentaries over the last 10 years. My last film, Scenes from a Dry City, won the World Press Photo Prize for Online Video of the Year, and that was produced by Field of Vision out of New York in the States. very cool people there. And Meghana and I are married, so we thought it would be an interesting mix of my filmmaking and her visual art making. And we thought what a better place to meet other in this VR space where we could both bring qualities from our respective fields. So rather than argue about children, we thought we'd argue about container for two or three years. So that's, it's our first collaboration together and it actually went quite well. I was quite surprised we didn't argue that much.
[00:02:18.294] Meghna Singh: I think, yeah, we argue about a lot of other things, but here we work quite smoothly.
[00:02:23.927] Kent Bye: I was just talking to the producers of Kasunda and I said that kind of an expansion from visual anthropology is a spatial anthropology, which I think is really quite interesting that you actually have a background in visual anthropology. So maybe you can each give me a bit more context as to your individual backgrounds and your journey into virtual reality.
[00:02:43.971] Meghna Singh: So I moved to Cape Town from New Delhi. I'm from India about 10 years ago. And the PhD project I was working on was on global mobilities and contemporary and historical migrations located in Cape Town. So I got permission to access the port, which is this amazingly beautiful space in Cape Town. It seems very accessible, but it's all barbed wires and you can't go in. but you can see the container ships coming in and out. So I'd done two other projects, which were looking at migrants who were caught up inside the port. There was a group of Indian seafarers caught up, that's one project. And then there was another project where there was a deep sea diamond mining vessel from Namibia, which was completely rusted and decaying, but there was a group of illegal migrants from Ghana who were taking shelter inside. And then I came across this project, which a couple of underwater archaeologists were working on. They were trying to find the remains of a slave ship. And this project was funded by the American African Museum in Washington, which was about to open, you know, the new Smithsonian African American Museum. And the new director there had basically said, we have to find the remains of a slave ship. And so this beach called Clifton Beach, which is a very privileged space, mostly visited by white South Africans, is where they found the remains of Portuguese slave ship, which had picked up enslaved men and women from Mozambique and was on its way to Brazil, and had stopped in Cape Town and the ship sank. And on board, there were about 450 enslaved men and women, and half of them drowned. And so that was the third sort of case study I was looking at for my PhD in terms of historical migration in Cape Town. And Simon and I started talking about this case quite a lot because we used to visit Clifton Beach and we'd be watching the sunset, we'd be drinking wine. And once we were familiar with the fact that just two meters from where we sat, like the graves of enslaved men and women, it was just so uncomfortable. And so it became about like, how do you tell the story of slavery in a place like Cape Town? Because even the enslaved men and women who were saved, were sold into slavery at the slave lodge, which is in the center of the town, in the city center, and their descendants still continue to walk amongst us. And from the very same beach, you have this amazing view of the port, and you see container ships going in and out all the time. So we sort of looked at where we were sitting, the question around enslaved ancestors and the memory of slavery in Cape Town, and at the same time, we were looking at these ships and these containers moving in and out of the port. And it was like, what's inside these containers? That's always invisible. Like people don't really think about what moves around in containers. And so we decided to make Container, which connects historical slavery to modern day servitude, in a way to also answer the question on how do you remember a question of slavery in a place like Cape Town?
[00:06:01.009] Simon Wood: Yeah, so as I said, I was a filmmaker, so I primarily made documentaries with really strong aesthetics. my first sort of four films deal with issues in and around South Africa, where I live. And, you know, the last film I made, Scenes from a Dry City, looked at the climate crisis, but explored societal dynamics and how it would be affected. So when Megan and I started talking about the slave ship, it felt like a massive opportunity to contemporise what we saw as a sort of historical truth. I think people feel quite comfortable about things being in the past and we thought, you know, our tagline, Witness the Invisible Eyes, we really wanted to push this idea that this is a contemporary story and we saw an opportunity in VR to almost create a sort of artistic confrontation I don't know when the last time you were in a cinema was, but most people are looking at their phones now and it's not quite what it was, the cinema. And here in this visor that you have to wear, it's quite hard to sort of escape what's happening to you in that arena. So we thought, here is this presentation of a truth as we saw it in a space where it's very hard to turn away. And then the whole conversation became about choice. And that's why we didn't use 360 because we actually really wanted to send to the viewer towards a perspective where they couldn't turn away. You know, it wouldn't be right for us to create a film about slavery and give an element of choice in that space. You know, the methodology is clear. It's confrontational. It's almost visceral. It's tactile. And we thought, here's this most amazing instrument, you know, that we can use to tell our story.
[00:08:03.112] Kent Bye: Yeah. And Meghna, maybe you could expand a little bit on the concept of visual anthropology and then, you know, translating it from 2D media into like a spatial anthropology, but also this, I'd say, mix of like speculative design with documentary. This piece is kind of fusing a lot of these different elements together, and I'm just Curious to hear a little bit more about the foundations of anthropology, visual anthropology, and this expansion into more of a spatial context to be able to use the containers and metaphor to be able to explore things that aren't so clear within the metaphor, but being able to construct a speculative design that is actually kind of expanding out these deeper metaphors to be able to make the invisible visible.
[00:08:43.784] Meghna Singh: So I think this project, more than located in, I'd say, visual anthropology, is located in the history of Cape Town and South Africa. So a lot of the times people say, when you talk about South Africa, why do we just talk about apartheid, which you would know about, South African apartheid? But why do we not talk about historical slavery? So there have been recent discussions around historical slavery and how do you talk about that in Cape Town, you know, how do you, what do you do? So when I was working with the underwater archaeologist who worked on finding the remains of the slave ship, the lead archaeologist, Yako, he said that there might be a possibility that we might find a mass grave of enslaved people and that was very interesting for me because I said, you know, this is prime property in South Africa. We're talking about Clifton Beach. We're talking about these massive mansions overlooking the Atlantic. And what are they going to do? Are there still going to be people in their bikinis, you know, sun tanning and sitting on the graves of enslaved men and women? So something like that became very important for us, that what is it confrontation, you know? So if you see the last scene in the project, we show that they enslaved rise out of the ocean and they come and confront you. And I talk about Avery Gordon, who's a historian, and she draws a parallel between historical slavery and capitalism in America, which, you know, everyone knows about historical slavery and capitalism. It is the start of capitalism. But she says that, what do we do to move on? And I adopt her theory of something called the meeting of the dead and the living as a way which would provide healing for us to move on, to answer questions. So it's an experimental methodology. It's a methodology where you would move beyond the obvious. Like, what does it mean for the meeting of the dead and living in a place like Cape Town? But the new generation, you know, the born frees in South Africa, they're the inaugurating ones. That's also another term. We say they have to basically do something that provides healing. So what we do in Container is we traverse across time and space. So there's historical scenes and the contemporary scenes. And we, as the audience, find ourselves in this container. And there is a meeting of the dead and living because you find that space. where you acknowledge. It's about being present and acknowledging and saying that we understand what happened and we're going to think of a way to move forward. So the whole thing about container boiled down to being in a space and acknowledging and witnessing and not turning away. And once you witness and once you've been through something and once you accepted the dead haven't been laid to rest, they have come out of the ocean, they have come to confront us, then there's a possibility of moving forward. Yeah.
[00:11:51.971] Kent Bye: Yeah. It reminds me of this kind of new form of truth and reconciliation, which, you know, you had a, a big part of having a process to be able to have people who were complicit and participating in the apartheid to be able to tell the truth about their transgressions that they did against human rights and to be able to actually speak the truth and to be able to hear that truth be heard. And then to potentially open up this context for forgiveness. Now, obviously, there's always the capability of how authentic is that type of telling of the truth and how much you're able to really bear witness to, in this case, you know, to be able to bear witness to the slavery and to be able to reach that place of healing. It actually requires some part of the people who were involved to be able to actually speak the truth of what actually happened. In this case, it's an intergenerational aspect where those people aren't there to be able to speak the full truth, but there's historical legacies that are there. So it's interesting to see this as a form of being able to acknowledge the past and to make the connections between what's happening today and what's happened in the past and create this visual bridge through the metaphor of the container. I'd love to hear some of your thoughts on using the actual context of this container to talk about these currently enslaved people that are still working and supporting this larger system of capitalism and how this is maybe the bridge to a lot of things that we're not seeing and how within this piece, you're able to actually make that visual bridge through this metaphor of the container.
[00:13:18.779] Meghna Singh: So the motif of the container, physical and symbolic, was because we talk about how people have become products, which is a very definition of slavery. So when you think of a container in a shipping yard, you think of a container filled with products. But here, when you enter the container, it's products and people. So we use that symbolically as a motif. When we were looking at container ships and seeing these containers, we call them bullets of trade. You know, we said these containers are bullets of trade. They were there what symbolizes capitalism, global capitalism, going around the world, moving around. So these products are being shipped around the world, but we don't know who's made them. We don't know the story of the workers behind the creation of these products. So essentially, we use the container and we go inside it to bring forward the story of the silent workers, of people behind the products. And also, it's been visualized as an installation experience, which you don't see at Venice. But the experience actually involves audience members standing outside a container, and there's a worker from the port, and he asks six people to go in. And that container is actually filled with some products and boxes. And then he gives you instructions, and he asks you to sit down amongst the products. And that's when you wear your headsets. and you experience the film. And once you take your headset off, you find yourself sitting amongst those products, amongst those boxes, and then you exit. And ideally, there would be a space where you see the ocean. So that is the piece in its entirety, where we use the container again, where we invite the audience to come and sit amongst the products. So once you've finished it and you take your headset off, and then you find yourself in this, like, container with boxes, you know, it makes you think much more. about what you've just witnessed.
[00:15:17.293] Kent Bye: And Simon, maybe you could expand on this fusion of different, I guess, genres of filmmaking, because you have documentary filmmaking, but they also have installation art and other conceits within VR that you're kind of able to bring in all these other elements that maybe go beyond what the strict definitions of what some people would think of as documentary, at least. You know, I think Errol Morris is somebody who has started to create these different fictionalized elements to be able to expand upon things that are actually happening, even if there's nothing there to be able to explicitly document. So I'm just curious to hear from your perspective, from the filmmaking side, you know, what are the different existing traditions of documentary that you're bringing in and what are these other new things that you're fusing in, whether it's the history or the visual anthropology or the installation art to be able to kind of create this new fusion?
[00:16:05.690] Simon Wood: Yeah, so my last producer actually in America said to me, I watched a film that she was involved in and it had literally five seconds of archive in it. It was a film called America by Garrett Bradley. It was a very good film. And I challenged her and I said, this isn't a documentary, Charlotte, you're kidding me. Like you've got nothing in here that's a documentary. Everything else was this beautifully 35 mil shot black and white film and it was, all about the archive that didn't exist in America. Basically how black archive is non-existent. It was never taken. And here's the filmmaker saying, well, if it doesn't exist, I'm going to make it myself. And she said to me, and if Garrett wants to call this a documentary, that's good enough for me. It is a documentary, you know? And I kind of feel like it's similar with Container. I mean, we deliberately held back all of the classical documentary scenes till right at the end of the film, where you're suddenly in the terminal, where Megan was hanging out with a lot of port workers over a few days and uncovering, you know, products coming in and leaving South Africa. So we wanted to create like a magical realist type experience. We wanted to create a space where time didn't exist correctly, where everything was happening almost like Einstein predicted that time is happening at once. And it's not a linear experience. It's all condensed into this box, this box that we see all the time and we never know what's inside it. You know, like we see thousands of these boxes almost on a daily basis, and we don't know what's in there. So as filmmakers, we chose what's put in there, obviously, but then we also allow documentary gods to present what they have right at the end of the film to contemporise it right into a space, you know, a few kilometres away from our house today. So obviously the best situation would be to, well, I don't know if it's obvious, but as a filmmaker, I always gravitate towards documenting real experiences. I have no interest in directing fiction. I never have done, but the archive doesn't exist. And it was our job as filmmakers to create it.
[00:18:27.997] Kent Bye: Yeah. One of the things that I find really interesting about, you say the history of film, the evolution of film is that there's a certain language and grammar that has evolved and how to tell stories within film. And that, you know, 180 format of the immersive storytelling is a little bit more bounded where it's probably closer to the analog of filmmaking than say the 360, which is perhaps closer to theater. So there's theatrical elements that are kind of still blended in into the 180, but still the filmmaking and the grammar of filmmaking, you know, there's an adage for filmmakers is to show don't tell, which I think is a big part of what I see in this piece, which is that a lot of these immersive documentaries, there'll still be a narrator coming in and pedagogically telling you what is happening and why, and you know, you kind of shied away from that in this piece. And I think it forces you to really focus on what are the new conceits of spatial storytelling or storytelling that you're able to kind of juxtapose things together through the editing that allows to communicate a message that goes beyond being able to just tell someone about what's happening and why and what you're doing. And so I feel like this is a piece in particular, that's really innovating on a lot of those different areas of coming up with that grammar that is in this case, using the common conceit of the container, which creates a consistent architectural element that allows you to really connect these different scenes together in a way that is thematic of saying. anybody is contained within this container is in some sort of enslaved position. And here's a way in which that that's connected to people who are benefiting from those products, which you kind of end up there at the end. But I'd be really curious to hear about your own process and journey of taking what we know from film and other theatrical elements and installation art and fusing them all together to be able to create this piece that doesn't really have a lot of narration, but you're able to really rely upon these spatial metaphors to really connect these dots and be able to tell the story.
[00:20:18.973] Simon Wood: Well, we worked in quite a distinct way. So Meghna created the container. So I'll let her talk about that. Just briefly, in terms of technical, I struggled a bit with 360 when I bumped into it four or five years ago, you know, like I've created like these highly cinematic films where you almost merge the idea of fiction with documentary just on the basis of beauty. And when I put a 360 experience on myself, To begin with, I was like, hmm, I'm really not sure about this. There's a lot of these films were just very still and they couldn't move the camera around. And that was really bothering me that we would cut from room to room to room and look around and next room, next room. And I also didn't like how it looked, the aesthetic of 360. I thought it reminded me of going back in time and watching sort of ST television. It's like standard definition. And so I was really struggling as a filmmaker if I could exist in this space in 360 for Container. And then I started doing a lot of research. Obviously, I thought, right, I've got to start watching VR. I've got to start getting into this. And obviously, we don't have a budget to do a massive Unity build. We can't do that. We don't have the tools to do that. We are visual artists, filmmakers. And then we bumped into VR180, watching these really weird girlfriend experiences on YouTube with Japanese and Chinese. women who are pretending to be your girlfriend for the day. And I couldn't get over how cool it looked because suddenly I noticed that the whole thing was about reaching out, was about passing the drink, sharing the popcorn, you know, passing the towel when you're next to the pool. And I was like, oh my God, this is incredible. You know, like it's like breaking walls down for me as a director. I'm like, know this lady she really likes me she's smiling at me she's giving me a gin and tonic this is a whole new ball game for me like um 3d vr 180 felt extremely problematic you know in so many ways for me i almost remember taking off the headset and thinking, Jesus, if my wife knew what I was looking at right now, I'd be in a lot of trouble. I mean, it felt like borderline cheating. So here we have something I got genuinely sort of excited about in terms of using it for this project. And what I also became fascinated with was the darkness behind you always, you know, and I think you know, in terms of methodology, it couldn't be clearer. You know, this darkness enveloping these people as you traverse through our shipping container is obvious, you know. So that was a little bit about my probably fairly problematic journey to the aesthetic of Container. But Meghna created and designed all of the worlds, which we spent a lot of time on, and she can discuss those.
[00:23:25.925] Meghna Singh: Yeah, I mean, one of the initial conversations, because Container took four years, You know, we were at the New Dimensions workshop, which Ingrid and Stephen organized. It's organized by Electric South. And then we pitched at IDFA, the Central Forum. Then we pitched at Venice. And, you know, there wasn't any money. And finally, we got this amazing National Geographic grant, which set everything into production. So there were obviously different stages. And one of the things we were very excited about was the idea of a container within a container within a container. So we wanted the audience to enter and feel like they're in a physical container, but then, you know, they should be in a metaphorical container and journeying into lives of people who are in containers to mess with their minds. And that changed by the end of it, you know, you're in one container which keeps transforming, which keeps morphing into different spaces. But with the installation, which we do hope to install maybe after Venice and once, you know, things are more sort of COVID-friendly, is the idea that the audience feel like they are in a port and someone's actually inviting them inside the container. And this container, which is the installation, feels very real. You know, you're being invited in their boxes and their products, and then someone's giving you instructions and asking you to sit down, so you have to do that. then you wear your headset and you find yourself in the same position inside that very same container, but you start witnessing these people. So you're basically blurring, you're messing with their mind in terms of what's real, what's not. You're like, okay, I got inside a container, I'm sitting here, but this is the exact same position in which I'm seeing this man in a sugarcane plantation. And when that experience ends, because You've been in these several containers and you take your headset off. And again, you find yourself sitting in the very same container. And the last scene you've seen is like these people coming in and picking up the boxes and taking them out. It's really about like what is real, what's not. To be able to make people really feel like they've got a glimpse into this world of what goes on. And then the main thing of coming out to the back of the container and looking at the sea. Because we always say that the ocean cannot speak, but if you look at it, it reminds us of those who were chained, those who were enslaved, and those basically who move on the ocean, which are made invisible. And the workers working, making things for us, they're made invisible. So the ocean becomes a very important element as well. So that was the idea behind the installation experience. Tell me about your art direction. on my art direction. So the art direction was make it as real as possible, minimal. So in, for instance, the scene in the colonial household, we actually got a portrait of a man and a woman who were the assistant art directors' great-grandparents. She said, you know, I'd gone to their house and they had this colonial mansion. And she said, oh, I've got their portraits. It's so real in terms of the South African experience as well. And just like what they would have in their house of interiors, which is, you know, the skull of a deer, but also the carpet, the red carpet. We looked really long to find a carpet, which was really rich and would match something from that time, which fitted the exact dimensions of the container. we did eventually find it. So I think it was like what Simon was saying, to make something hyper real. So the art direction was focused on minimal but yet elements which were really thought through, like the map of Africa, you know, when the lady puts up the map of Africa and then she takes the tea set and she pours the sugar cubes. So that was very carefully thought through because then we cut to the man in the sugarcane plantation and the importance of sugar, you know, we know start of capitalism is a sugar. So yeah, the art direction is minimal, but everything was carefully thought through.
[00:27:41.030] Kent Bye: As I watch this piece, I see that there is these visual connections between the end products that white people are enjoying in some fashion, and then doing these visual cuts to, okay, here's the deeper context for how this was produced. And you see these black men who have slashes on their back and they're in the sugar cane fields, but it doesn't go back another level to show whoever is creating this enslaved situation or context. You only see. the first part of that. So I'm curious if you thought about going back and tying in the people who are actually doing the enslavement, because it kind of creates an ambiguity of, you know, these people are at these places and work of like, there's a someone who is given massages, you know, is she a sex worker, or she's someone who's being human trafficked and it's sort of unclear as to what the deeper context as to what that is. But it's clear from the overall context of the film, but it's not made explicit in terms of, okay, what is the context of this enslavement of who are the people who are in this position of creating this context of oppression?
[00:28:42.534] Simon Wood: Yeah. I mean, I briefly answer that. I mean, I think very much we discussed and thought about the viewer themselves becoming almost implicated in the crime. So I'm not convinced I wanted to show anything. I mean, we obviously do show the sailor getting the massage, but we always wanted to leave a lot of room for imagination in the piece. We didn't want to go to spaces where it almost become unbearable to watch. But equally, who is the puppet master? Who are we trying to implicate in the film? You could make an argument that we're trying to implicate the viewer themselves into a sort of understanding of their own complicity in a system that perpetuates a heinous crime for hundreds of years. I'm not sure I wanted to ever take the gaze away from the person themselves who's experiencing it, if that makes sense. Yeah.
[00:29:46.841] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's kind of an out of sight, out of mind element here, just in the structures of capitalism, but also in this piece where you're trying to make those connections between what's out of sight and trying to put them in mind. And I guess when I think about this as an issue, how can you at each stage of production of anything be in right relationship to everything around you? And I think in this piece, you're showing how things are not in right relationship, but because we can't see that, then it's out of sight, out of mind. And this is a piece that is trying to bring those things back into our mind. In the making of piece, you said, now in the history of all of mankind, there's the most slavery than we've ever had. And because it is so hidden in this way, we don't necessarily recognize it or even acknowledge that in some way. So yeah, I'm just curious to hear your thoughts on That statement is something that, you know, I hadn't heard anybody else say that. So what's that look like in terms of like these different types of enslavement situations and how that's defined versus, you know, this piece of art that is trying to make these visual bridges to illuminate this as an issue?
[00:30:47.113] Meghna Singh: I mean, if you type modern day slavery, it's the first thing that'll come up, you know, it'll say that there are more enslaved men and women and children in the world than there ever were before. I guess, how do you define someone who's enslaved? It's not someone in chains put in a ship and shipped out of Africa. The different definitions, long, long hours for 16 hours a day with minimum wage or working conditions. I mean, you can buy a T-shirt for 150 rand, but what does it cost to actually make it and ship it? you don't think about buying and buying in consumer culture. So I think the definition of modern day slavery is different than what you would define historical slavery as, but it is still enslavement of people. Or if you talk about domestic workers in London in mansions, working again for 14 hours a day with little pay or their passports taken away. I mean, that is a form of slavery, modern day slavery. So it definitely is, apparently, or in terms of the figures, much more than it's ever been in the world. I think the project, what we try really hard is, like Simon said, the viewer is guilty. It's just to take you on the 16-minute journey where, in a very visceral, tactile way, you can't turn away and you see what's going on behind the scenes. Who's making your footballs? Who's making your shoes? Who's making your T-shirts? And we didn't want to just make it historical, and we didn't want to make it contemporary. The important thing was to question how it carries on. It hasn't ended. So no, it's good enough for us to say, yeah, slavery is something we'd read in history books. It existed. But the important thing is to say, no, it didn't exist. It still exists. So there has to be a global effort in recognizing it very much exists, and for everyone to just become much more conscious and question in their everyday lives, in the choices they make, in the things they buy, how are the people being treated, where is it coming from? Yeah.
[00:32:53.343] Kent Bye: We're sort of well into a lot of the spoiler areas that I hope people will have their own direct experience. But I wanted to ask, uh, if this is going to be generally available, uh, or like what the plans for distribution are for, you know, if you're going to do like a festival run, or if this is intended to be made available for people to watch in some fashion, because I know the distribution channels are kind of not well-defined at this point. And so if there's any specific plans you had with this project.
[00:33:17.667] Simon Wood: Yeah, so we are doing the classic festival run thing at the moment. We're about to announce another festival tomorrow. Next stop for it is the BFI London Festival. It's having a big cool VR space on the South Bank there. And then we hope to go to all the places that everyone else hopes to go to, I think is the honest answer. We are looking at outreach As a big thing for this project, we want to have physical installations in the ports of Mozambique, Cape Town, Brazil, some of the southern slave towns in America. We are hustling like we've always done to raise finance to create installations in those spaces. We're really lucky to be attached to Electric South, who's probably the coolest distributor in Southern Africa for VR, and they've got their own thing going on. And I'm obviously a filmmaker, so I love going to film festivals, and Meghna couldn't care less. So her plan is to get it in, I would admit, cool galleries and drink wine with her friends.
[00:34:22.431] Meghna Singh: No, I think what's very important for the project, for me, after the festival circuit, is as wide an outreach as possible, as many people to go and experience it. And one of the things we had spoken about was we were looking at the slave trades from Europe to Africa, you know, stopping in Cape Town to Brazil and the Americas, and the idea was to be able to install a container in most of the port cities which would have been connected with slave trades. And so this specific slave ship was Portuguese and, you know, they went to northern Mozambique and they would go to Brazil, but the West African coast, you know, is full of stories and places and these strange forts where enslaved men and women were kept before they were shipped off to America. So the idea would be to install it in all these places in Africa, Europe, America and Brazil. And then, you know, like, for instance, American, African American Museum, that would be great, you know, if it was installed in a space like that.
[00:35:21.910] Simon Wood: And we designed it so, as you yourself know, that it could be experienced online. I mean, we thought we would have finished this film last year if it wasn't for COVID. And, you know, and then we realized that because of everything that was happening in the world right now, that it couldn't just be an installation piece. You know, we wanted it to have its own legs on the internet and for people to watch it there and hopefully get it there. I'm fairly clueless to the best internet spaces for VR. You know, I spend a lot of time looking for stuff to watch. So if you've got any ideas, please let me know. Or any of your listeners, let us know. We would love to show the film in sort of cool online spaces.
[00:36:03.773] Kent Bye: Distribution within the XR space. I mean, there's a lot of gaming outlets for Steam and Oculus Home and Viveport, you know, Viveport of all the different places probably has the most of the immersive narratives that we see in the festival circuit, but at the same time, it's still gaming centric. And there's a new distributor that actually was announced today by the creators of Atlas 5 or Atlas V. I forget. That's always confusing as to me, which one they prefer, but. There's a new they call Astra, which is a sister distribution company. So trying to flesh out what the distribution options are, you know, like 180 dome experiences, but this is different. The piece that you've created, cause it's actually one 80, but sort of flipped a side. So I don't think. a dome experience would necessarily work as well, unless it's a tilted dome rather than a dome that you're looking up more in the planetarium. So that's one distribution chain. Obviously a lot of the museums, but online, there hasn't been a good economy for that. It's like, if you want the most people to see it for free, it's YouTube, but the economics don't really make sense for most professional 360 video or 180 degree immersive media. So that is an outlet that people use, but it's not one that's monetized in a way that makes sense for anybody that's actually making the content. So it's a challenge because as somebody who's a journalist who loves to watch and cover and talk about it, there's a lot of say innovations that are happening in terms of the grammar and the technique. But then it ends up like either you saw it and you understand it, or you're listening to this conversation that we're having to be able to try to gleam out the different aspects of the project so that people could sort of imagine what you're doing without having the chance to see it. I always prefer people to have a chance to see it. but it just makes it difficult to have a medium as a whole progress when there's this disruption of the distribution channels. Kind of, in some ways, a metaphor for economy of the whole XR ecosystem that is very biased towards one very specific industry vertical, which is gaming, leaving all these other industry verticals scrambling to kind of figure out how to make a living or how to keep creating work and innovating and pushing things forward. It's a lot of burden put onto the creators to be able to figure out how to make it work financially and to create in this handcrafted bespoke, more enterprise-esque as a metaphor, where you have to do a lot of work just to get it, rather than just putting it out and having it distributed to mass consumers. It's more of like very specific art galleries and stuff like that. So that's at least what I've heard of. And it's sort of a challenge. And my perspective kind of holds back the entire industry from if it was more clear to be able to just get this into the hands of thousands of people, then you could get money directly from those consumers. But yeah, it's streaming services, maybe the path in the future where there's a model there for you to kind of be a part of a system that you're paying into. And it's like that way of funding this type of work in 2D realm is moving more towards that model. Maybe eventually we'll have that. Viveport has their own subscription service, but again, it's very focused on gaming. So that's like a quick tour. Thank you.
[00:39:01.877] Simon Wood: If you hear anything, please let us know because we're learning relentlessly.
[00:39:07.803] Kent Bye: Yeah. And I wanted to just share a couple of my own experiences that are going to stick with me, I think, because overall this piece feels like a dream. Like you're constructing these spatial metaphors that are tied together in a way that has a lot of provocative and evocative and emotional intensity. You know, there's the scenes of someone who's being human trafficked in the context of sex work. And then there's the scene where the sugar cubes are being put into the bowl and then you cut to the enslaved man in a sugar cane field with all these flashes on his back and then eventually coming back to that same scene where he's presumably dug his own grave and he's getting into the grave and then The next scene is that's all covered over and the carpet is put over that so that you get the sense of, you know, this life is being built on the graves of these enslaved men. And then the final scene, making that visual connection of the people that you were talking about on the beach, sitting there enjoying their beach time, but in the context of the container with these enslaved men with chains coming in. So each of these scenes, I think are provocative. dream-like spatial metaphors without relying upon people speaking, but really telling the story. I think this as a piece, more than most pieces that I end up seeing in the realm of immersive documentary can be seen without understanding the language. It transcends language in a way that I see most of the ways of telling stories relying upon some sort of narration or relying on people speaking. And I think what you're able to achieve here is really pushing forward the visual storytelling of the medium And being able to set it within the container allows this visual bridge that I think is able to tie things together that I think works really well. And like you said, the 180 is also constraining your vision. So anyway, that's sort of things that I wanted to describe for people who may not have been able to see it, but also as a way of capturing my own memories of what this piece is able to do, because I feel like it's able to create. memories in me that are very visceral and very provocative to be able to make these visual bridges and connect these things in my mind. And I guess as a viewer, as I'm in some ways implicated, I'm always thinking about, okay, what's next? What do we do? The best I can think of is get more people to see this piece, but then, you know, have a larger conversation to then be able to be like, okay, how do we continue to make the unseen scene, the invisible visible? And to be able to, at the end of the day, as a consumer, make a different consumer choice, to have in the pipeline of our products that we're buying, how can we ensure that there's no slavery involved in that chain?
[00:41:34.563] Meghna Singh: Yeah, you summed it up very nicely.
[00:41:37.766] Simon Wood: Well, we hope to be traveling around America. We'll bump into you there with more ideas, we hope. We're sort of using the piece to ask everyone else what they would do and what they could do and where we can show it. And we're hoping that it sort of builds momentum globally. So if anyone who's listening thinks that there's a cool space where we can show container, please email us. We're down for a conversation.
[00:42:03.272] Kent Bye: Yeah, it seems like, you know, within some ecosystems, you have concepts like fair trade to ensure that the workers that were working on that were adequately compensated and that there wasn't any exploitation that was happening. And so these independent entities that are involved. So it seems like there are some existing things like that, but overall, obviously it's not to the point where that's just like the law where you have no choice or there's ways to actually audit. the history of these things in a way that is able to kind of ensure that. So that's logistically and institutionally, that's some of the things that as I see a piece like this, it makes me question, okay, what is the ways of doing some sort of auditing to make sure that this whole concept of right relationship in the product chain is something that as I watch the piece, that's something that I take away. And I don't know if there's any other thoughts or directions that you have in terms of things to look at, things that are already existing that we need to expand or things that could help, I guess, change this overall dynamic of the situation.
[00:42:59.041] Meghna Singh: I think the way we make the connection from the man in the sugarcane plantation to the woman in the colonial household to the sex worker, I think it's it's very important to remember that historically disadvantaged don't have necessarily received justice as well. So when we talk about historical wrongs and justice that hasn't been done to people. So I think, especially in a place like South Africa, because Simon and I always say that we made a project that is located within the context of Cape Town, but speaks globally to different places in the world. is to come to an understanding that we have to be very conscious of lives of people as they're living now, because they haven't received justice as well. You know, a lot of them are descendants of the enslaved or people where we've done wrong. So that kind of consciousness as well. So consumerism, yes, you know, products, yes, but in a place like Cape Town, just to be aware that a lot of people think that that justice hasn't come.
[00:44:03.267] Kent Bye: Great. And, uh, and finally, what do you think is the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling and what am I able to enable?
[00:44:14.334] Simon Wood: That is a big question. It's goodness me. What a question. I mean, when having experienced production of VR over the, just from a film director's perspective, I really felt like we're at the, you know, train leaving the station moment of VR, you know, we're at such an early phase of it. But there's no doubt from my perspective as a filmmaker, it breaks barriers between the viewer and the subject, you know, and that's obviously extremely exciting in terms of storytelling and in terms of documentary. But I genuinely don't know the answer to that question. I think, give me another 10 years and I'll tell you. I want it to leap forward a bit. I feel like it's been stuck technically in the space that I'm comfortable with, which is, you know, 360, 180. I want it to jump forward. I want it to feel a bit more sort of hyper real image wise. It's still a bit grainy and choppy for me to like fully love it. Whereas Meghna, what do you think we are?
[00:45:28.474] Meghna Singh: I think we need to make another two projects.
[00:45:30.675] Simon Wood: Yeah, we should make a few more films before we answer.
[00:45:33.116] Meghna Singh: Yeah, we asked this question a lot with the first project, you know, and I think we managed to, we were, we liked some aspects and we were not excited about some. And then I think what we narrowed down to was we thought was what had potential. for us, which was extreme proximity. How do you make it hyper real? How do you make it visceral? How do you feel like you can touch someone and it's tactile? So we use that element, which we thought worked. We'd seen a lot of gaming and a lot of animation, which is not really our thing. So I think give us another two, three virtual reality projects and we can answer your question.
[00:46:10.026] Kent Bye: Awesome. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?
[00:46:18.183] Simon Wood: Well, no, because we have just premiered our first ever VR film. So we'll hopefully be travelling with it over the next 10 years, but maybe, maybe 12 months. And we look forward to meeting people and hopefully making some friends and colleagues, because we don't really know any of you. So I hope to make a whole new network of interesting people, you know, who can If you are listening, like I said, if you have some ideas for our projects, like where it should be shown, we are more than willing to have a conversation.
[00:46:50.299] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, The Container is at the Venice Film Festival until September 19th. And so if you want to try to catch it before then, definitely try to see it and then try to catch it as you travel around. And maybe eventually there'll be some way for people to watch it as well. Again, I think there's a lot of really innovations in terms of the style and the spatial metaphors and the architecture of the piece. I thought it was really powerful and it's going to stick with me. And it was one of these pieces that will stay with me in a way. So thanks for all you've done to be able to create it. And thanks for joining me here today on the podcast to be able to talk about it. So thank you.
[00:47:22.408] Meghna Singh: Thank you for interviewing us.
[00:47:26.011] Kent Bye: So that was Mingha Singh. She's a visual artist and has a doctorate in visual anthropology, as well as Simon Wood, who's a documentary film director based in Cape Town, South Africa. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, this piece is just really striking and provocative. And like I said, in the interview, it feels like a bit of a dream where it's created these spatial memories that really stick with me in a pretty powerful way. So I think they're on to something here in terms of the style of 180 video to be able to have a little bit more of a directorial vision and stylized movement of the cameras. And yeah, just as a director, being able to have a little bit more control in terms of more of an analog towards 2D cinema than it is, say 360 video, which maybe has more analogs to theater, which means that you're capturing a space and have a little bit less leeway in terms of camera movement and whatnot. But I think what they're able to achieve with these containers and be able to create that as a consistent spatial metaphor throughout the entire piece was able to have that architectural consistency that allowed you to make these associative links within your mind from one scene to the next and to just connect the dots between how things are not in right relationship when it comes to modern-day slavery and how it's connected to consumer capitalism. the ways that us, as a viewer, are implicated. I think in some ways, I'm dealing with being implicated and thinking about, OK, what's next? What do we do? But I think one of the other big takeaways that I got from Mingus Singh was, hey, there's just a lot of injustice that's been happening here. How do we find a way to bring justice to these different situations? from what's happening today, right now, as well as to think about this historical aspect. I think it's a piece that is provocative and designed to be able to have a broader conversation. They're not claiming to be able to have the solution for what to do to solve this, but I think this, as an art piece, is able to at least provoke people to really make these connections, but also to think about it and to start to Think about either from a legal perspective or a consumer perspective, what are the ways that we start to shift this larger dynamic of modern-day slavery? And just this very specifically located within the South African context and the ways that that is connected to these specific locations. And like I said, it's very connected to that location, but also is more generalizable in terms of it also being applicable to other locations, as well. It's sort of this universal aspect to the historical aspects of slavery, as well. So that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.