#692: Using Immersive Anxiety to Symbolically Depict Racial Tension

angel-manuel-sotoDinner Party is a short VR story that premiered at Sundance, and it uses the story of the alien abduction of Barney and Betty Hill to metaphorically explore the racial tension of interracial marriage in the early 1960s. I spoke to writers Laura Wexler & Charlotte Stoudt in episode #618, who talked about how they heard a lot of racial subtext in Barney’s hypnosis recordings of the abduction incident. I had a chance to talk to the Puerto Rican director of Dinner Party, Angel Manuel Soto, at Sundance who talked about how he personally connected to the themes of alienation and exile that were explored in this piece.

Soto shares a story of a white woman at Sundance who experienced quite a bit of anxiety in watching Dinner Party, and she brought up a lot of ethical questions about using immersive tension or need for different types of disclosure of intensity for people who may be dealing with PTSD from previous traumatic experiences. Soto also shared a story of a black woman who was actually happy to hear that the VR experience caused the reaction of anxiety within the safety of a VR experience since people are color are dealing with anxiety every day in America due to all of the racial tensions from the culture. Soto shares his perspectives on this topic, as well as the power of virtual reality to be able to symbolically explore these issues through the trope of paranormal experiences that connect to deeper human experiences in the context of an immersive series titled The Incident.


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Rough Transcript

[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 I saw Black Klansman last week, a film by Spike Lee, and it's a pretty intense film, but it's a piece that is exploring all the different racial tensions that are happening. You know, it's more of a historical film, but it's contextualizing all that's happening in the world today with a lot of these different racial tensions that we have. There's so many different ways of what's happening in the United States and around the world where we have these polar extremes of these different tensions that are being battled out. And artists use art to be able to tell stories and to translate these tensions into different metaphors. And this year at Sundance, there's a piece called Dinner Party, which was on the surface talking about Bernie and Betty Hill's abduction, an alien abduction story back in the early 60s. And I happened to run into the director of Dinner Party, Engel Manuel Soto, at a Sundance event and I had a chance to do an interview with him. He's a Puerto Rican and talks about his experience of trying to translate this symbolic story of this alien abduction into his own personal experience of race and white privilege and brown disadvantage within the United States. So we're going to be covering all of that and more on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Engel happened on Wednesday, January 24th, 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:43.684] Angel Manuel Soto: Hi, my name is Angel Manor Soto and I am the director of Dinner Party here in Sundance at the New Frontier program. I first started experimenting with VR almost like three years ago. My first visit to Sundance while promoting my film La Granja and I got very curious about it because I've been wondering how I can push some boundaries with storytelling. And I always liked the idea of this, you know, at first like this 360 video, kind of like get immersed and making your own decision type of thing on where to look at. So that very elementary description of like, you know, immersive 360 media caught my attention enough to start experimenting a little bit more. And then, you know, I was living in Puerto Rico at the time, and I moved to LA almost like about three years ago. And that's when I started to do more VR documentaries with Riot, with Riot Films. So after traveling the whole world, doing documentaries and having all the resources to push boundaries, about a year and something ago, my manager, Jairo Alvarado at Circle of Confusion, who represents Charlotte Stout, one of the writers, brought us together because she had this script. that she has written and she wanted to do it in VR. So we got together for a bunch of months, tried to work it out, see where we can fit in the VR thing. We did a couple of workshops, then Laura and Charlotte, who are the co-writers, did the New Frontiers Lab. We came back, put everything into practice, get it done, and now we're here with Dinner Party.

[00:03:20.091] Kent Bye: Great, so maybe you could talk about this story being introduced to you, but your connection to the story and how you kind of personally relate to it in some way.

[00:03:28.557] Angel Manuel Soto: No, that's a great question. Personally, I'm more of a deep, heavy drama driven guy. And yes, this story has that heavy drama in the term of marriage, right? But the whole sci-fi genre thing is something that I've been very picky about because I'm not about all the fantastic, flashing, silver metal things. I've always seen the best sci-fi is the one that speak about the deep human emotions or what makes humans animals. So like the darkness of the human soul. So Laura and Charlotte crafted this script that was very heavy. on a subtext that is very important to me. As a Latino living in the U.S., I have experienced racism firsthand. Even if it's L.A., you know, everybody's a Latino. Still, being in Puerto Rico, in L.A., I get racism from everywhere. So when I was getting the script and reading, I couldn't stop seeing was the underlying racial tension that was very well engraved in the DNA of the script. and the fact that they used the alien abduction as a representation or manifestation of white privilege versus brown disadvantage, I was like, I have to do this. That's a very personal connection I have with the script as a Latino in the U.S. But as a filmmaker, the way they also developed that first act, I thought this is a great excuse to try what I think could be the way that narrative VR should be done, which is one continuous shot a la Robert Altman, Birdman, Rope, Goodfellas, where you just land on cues, but you never really stop missing what they're saying. Almost like here, like, I saw you, we came in, we walked in, we're here. We never cut. So I always thought that this is the way to tell narrative VR. This is the way it works for me. And also the fact that we'll be experimenting with mocap and all these other heavy VFX things that I've never had the opportunity to work with because of the limitations of budget and resources in Puerto Rico. So being able to have all these elements for me to use and tell a story was very, very important.

[00:05:56.961] Kent Bye: Yeah, and talking to Charlotte and Laura about their process, they were saying that they were watching the YouTube clip which has the full audio of Barney Hill's hypnotherapy sessions where he's talking about his experience, and I'm curious if you could talk about your experience of listening to that, and then how to translate this subtext of the racial tension in this piece without ever really explicitly ever talking about it.

[00:06:21.093] Angel Manuel Soto: 100%. I get a little bit of goosebumps because it is one of the most haunting, creepy things I've ever heard. Because it's real. It's 1961. it looks as clear as a headphone recording and the vulnerability of Barney as he is sharing his experience he almost gets like a child terrified that a monster is coming or like he's gonna get a spanking or like something like the way he screams is like a child being tortured almost and you can tell like this is real whether It happened or not, it was so real to him. And, you know, you really never realize there's a racial tension until longer on the tape where the hypnotherapist asks him, what do they look like? And he says, they look like white Irish men. And that's when it hit me. And I was like, Yes, this is a manifestation of what he's going through. It's an interracial couple in US, 1961. It must have been hell for him. It's hell for a lot of them now. It's hell for us now. So I could only imagine what he was going through, what we are living. So whether it happened or it was a manifestation of what's happening to him, I sometimes ask myself, who cares? Who cares if it was aliens or your neighbor? And for me, that's the fucked up part.

[00:08:10.125] Kent Bye: So yeah, I'm curious the process for you to do this kind of phenomenological translation of the white privilege and the brown disadvantage to really depict the emotion of that rather than to, you know, get the tropes of the UFOs. But you were able to do like a much more symbolic representation, but it sounds like from your own direct experience, you're kind of like channeling your own experiences of those feelings. And I'm just curious your process in that.

[00:08:39.150] Angel Manuel Soto: Yeah, that's an interesting question, too, because I refused from the beginning to refer to his experience as a spaceship, as aliens with the big eyes and all that stuff happening. I really thought that that's not the way this should be done. I'm going back to the whole thing that we all come from the same place. We're all starters. We're all connected as humans, the universe, and we physically We are what we are because we're bound to the physics of where we're located. But what if in a place where gravity and physics don't control who you are? Your cells, your starters, your particles. So I believe that you're thinking of like the whole idea that maybe for these beings, time is relative. There's no past, present and future. For them, physicality and material and all these laws that we're bound to don't exist. How do they see us? Do they see us like the rest of the universe? And how will we interact with it if we were not bound by time and physics? So that's why there's that limbo scene where he is at the dinner party, but dressed like in the event, but everything looks like it's particles. That was our attempt to put past, present, and future in one whole scene. Because I think for the aliens, that doesn't exist. And that's like for him and for her, when her connection to the cosmos, as she expresses it, is very much like particles just mingling together. Organism. It's very organic. With him, It's more in a way that those things are the ones that are targeting him. It's coming from his extremity, from his inside. And yes, it's interactive with him, but in a disruptive way, because it's a clear representation of what he was going through. So, going with that whole mentality that time is relative and getting on all that deep stuff that will all start us, I felt that that was the best possible way of experiencing what it would be like to be the same thing. You're just particles like everybody else. But as white privilege, how beautiful everything is, and as black disadvantage, how tormenting everything is, and how that would look like in a particle sense.

[00:11:06.554] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I'm curious to hear a bit more about what you were talking about showing this piece here at Sundance and kind of having reactions for people and sort of the conversations and dialogues that this sort of spurred.

[00:11:17.419] Angel Manuel Soto: Yeah, the other day we had a good panel talking about everything with VR. And of course, as a director, I want to convey emotion. like I have all the artists that worked on it and my friend Fernando Rodriguez who did the lead VFX and the people at Telexist who actually worked very hard along with Uxie, Wu and all this amazing talent to bring our vision to life. Apart from all those achievements is the fact that through VFX I could convey that emotion of panic attack I forgot the name. She said something, but it had to do with panic attacks. Anxiety attack. That's the word, anxiety. So on the Q&A, she stood up and said, where does the social ethics and responsibilities of VR exist? Because she had to take the headset off after watching Dinner Party because she was having an anxiety attack. And, you know, where's our position as artists? on how far we're willing to push the medium, having in consideration that some people cannot handle it. Personally, I don't think anything should limit an artist. And as a provocateur and an auteur, you do want to push some buttons because there's a personal issue. This is not gratifying. I don't get anything from somebody having a panic attack. Of course, I wouldn't like that. But the fact that this was happening, one, made us realize that we were doing something very effective. Two, that VR really actually takes people out of their reality and makes them inside this world. And it's hard for them to detach from what's real or not. Even though it does the lowest denominator, it still happens. So it's very interesting also to keep that in mind. But more importantly, another woman stood up, and this is a black girl, and the woman asking the question was a white girl, and the black girl was, you know what, I'm actually glad that you experienced an anxiety attack, because this is what we, as a community, go through every day. So I am not sorry that you went through it, because you only experience it now, in a safe environment, in virtual reality. We face this every day. So she was very thankful that that emotion could be conveyed in a narrative film, in a general aspect, fantastic environment, that people could get a taste of what it's like to be a brown person in the U.S.

[00:14:05.732] Kent Bye: Yeah, that's really, really powerful. And it reminds me of this interview I did with Robin Arnett, who did this experience called SoundSelf. And in SoundSelf, you are using your voice to interact with the experience, and he has this spectrum of like either, on one end you have this complete control of using your voice to be able to control the visuals, and it starts to become a little bit of like playing a musical instrument. And at the other extreme, there's almost no connection between your voice and what was happening and you would scream and it would just have this positive feedback loop and just kind of go out of control. And what he found was that at one extreme where it was like an instrument wasn't interesting and the other extreme was actually traumatizing for people because it was taking away their control and their agency. and it put them in an environment that was actually very traumatizing for them to be in an environment that felt out of control but also had screaming and yelling in a way that I think that in your piece sort of has that element of like putting you in an experience of feeling completely out of control and I think in the future we'll probably have to have some sort of like warnings of like hey there could be some like knowing what the triggers are, and then being able to say, hey, you know, if you have PTSD regarding these, then just be aware that this has it, because people have gone through traumas, and those types of scenes can be traumatizing for people.

[00:15:24.658] Angel Manuel Soto: Yeah, 100%. After the conversation that we were talking about, the content creators and, you know, even the festival people, because, I mean, I don't know if they had this before, but it was the first time I've actually heard this and you know you want to be sensible and even though like you have like Gaspar Noé you know but I have all these people are provocateurs and even Kubrick, Clockwork Orange you know There is a disclaimer. There is a rating system. There is something that lets you know, you know, if you're sensitive to this type of material, don't see it. Like in my feature film, La Granja, in Puerto Rico, cockfights are legal. But in the rest of the world, it's illegal. And in the rest of the, like in the U.S., it's a very sensitive subject. So documenting something that's very real and brutal, we had to make a disclaimer. Like, you don't have to. But you do it because you want to respect the viewer. So I think also for VR, with especially experiences like dinner party, which have all this intense audio and visual effects to convey an emotion of anxiety, there's also ones that have a bunch of flashing lights. And if you're somebody who is susceptible to have an epileptic attack, Like, that should be a warning. So, yeah, I think that's our social responsibility as artists, knowing that the effects of VR are transcendent. And in film, the same way. I don't think there's that much of a detachment, but I think if we're at the forefront of a new technology, we could start by taking the first step early on. and acknowledging what's sensible, what's not, what's for mature content, what's for kids, and start like, you know, pragmatizing that a little bit.

[00:17:15.353] Kent Bye: Cool. And so for you, what's next with, uh, you know, I understand there's more series, but there's a common theme here of belief and stories that people are kind of like these supernatural experiences. And, and it's like this, you know, what do you believe is the truth of someone's direct experience? And so just curious to hear, you know, from your perspective, as you move forward, what's kind of next for you in these next projects.

[00:17:38.131] Angel Manuel Soto: Well, one good thing with this series, because Dinner Party is the pilot of an anthology series which explores supernatural events around the world that speak about deeper social issues in each country, family, gender, etc. So for me, more than just the fact of supernatural, I do appreciate the general mechanics of using those type of tropes to speak about social issues. For me, everything I do, I try to make it about a social issue, shine something to light. either explore the dark corners of the human being or show the possibilities of hope in a colony. So for me, that's what I'm very much driven to. So as far as the incident goes, that's what we're going for. So I'm very much looking forward for the next developments of the future scripts that are coming. Laura and Charlotte are amazing writers. They tackle the subtext in a way, and the subtlety in the dialogues in a way that I could only dream of. So it makes it very easy for me to get that from the actors when we do the future films. So I'm very much looking for that. And right now we're also, personally I'm adapting a documentary I did called Bashir's Dream in VR. We're adapting it to an AR documentary. and just working about other projects that have to do with the same thing, with like, you know, the systematic genocide of albinos and stuff like that, and see how we can also explore more stuff among the volumetric capture, room-scale experience, action-targeted and immersive experiences. So, all over the place, trying to do things, man.

[00:19:24.806] Kent Bye: So, yeah. Great. And finally, what do you think is kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality, and what it might be able to enable?

[00:19:35.280] Angel Manuel Soto: Man, that's a hard question because I have encountered feelings with VR. I think VR right now is on the research and development part. I don't think we know the capabilities of it yet. We're just tapping, we're just like ankle deep on what VR could really be. And I've never seen it as the evolution of anything. I don't think it's an evolution of cinema. It's easy to assimilate it to cinema, it's easy to assimilate it to theater. But I think, as a friend of mine once said, it's a blank canvas. And it's up to us artists to take VR to where it could be. A lot of it has been used for marketing and somehow, for a moment, people didn't take it seriously because they thought it was a gimmick. But we're here trying to make something out of it because we believe that it's a powerful tool. It's up to the hardware also to make it cheaper and more accessible, and not just to a specific market so that the whole world can buy it, but I think in due time, kind of like with cinema and TV. It's going to become a standard form, another standard form of media to tell stories. So I'm very hopeful for what it will become. Right now is kind of like the moment to get your hands dirty. Nothing is going to work perfectly. The cameras suck still, like the headsets suck still. And it's fine. It's OK. I'm glad they suck now. Because if it's stuck in a hundred years, we're in trouble. So I think this process is very cool. And I'm very happy to be part of this moment in history when it comes to like VR and see the possibilities just as a storyteller. Because I love writing. I love writing books, scripts, doing TV, doing film. And the fact that now we can also do something here is exciting. And all the different branches that we have, you know, it's just like, I think the future is not bleak for VR, but it's up to us.

[00:21:46.244] Kent Bye: Great, and is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:21:51.090] Angel Manuel Soto: As a Puerto Rican being in Sundance, this is not a dream that people... tell you that it's possible. So I'm humbled for being here with a project that, you know, everybody in the team poured their hearts in. There's two Puerto Ricans involved. We have lost everything back home. So for us being here is, I hope, this comes back to the island and people see that it can be done. You know, if if I can go back and give resources to make it happen for me, that would be amazing. But for me, that's like. The film is cool, but I cannot get out of my head the fact that we're here from a small island that got crushed by a hurricane. And it means a lot. So I'm glad the reception has been awesome, and I'm glad that you're giving me the time to talk about it. And I hope more stories like this can be done by people who don't have access to the technology. There's stories all over the world, and we need to hear them.

[00:23:02.582] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining me today on the podcast.

[00:23:05.483] Angel Manuel Soto: No, thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

[00:23:08.504] Kent Bye: So that was Angel Manuel Soto. He's the director of Dinner Party. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, I was just really glad to actually catch Angel at this party at Sundance. It's just kind of a serendipitous interaction. And I'm just really happy to capture the emotional tenor of what he was going through personally with all of this. Hurricane Maria and being a Puerto Rican in America But also this larger thread of what was really drawing him to this project because you know the Barney and Betty Hill presumably on the surface is about this extraterrestrial abduction story that is you know for Betty it was a very spiritual transcendent experience and for Barney it was like this really traumatic and terrible experience that was really just re-traumatizing of all of his other experiences of being a black man in an interracial marriage in the early 60s in America And so it was interesting just to hear Engel's own personal experience of his connection to that dimension of that story, which is a racial story that is a subtext of the film. It's something that is there underneath, but he's doing everything that he can to sort of create this symbolic representation of that tension, of that terror and that anxiety and that panic that he feels. and there's all sorts of ethical issues there in terms of VR designers what are the ethical responsibilities for disclosure around these are different topics that may be traumatizing or triggering there's rating systems that are able to handle that what type of disclosure do we need is that something that is going to actually ruin the impact of that or what is the way that as virtual reality creators Because it's such an immersive experience, does it have the capability to either cause new trauma or re-traumatize people who have already gone through a number of different experiences? And what are those triggers that people have, such that if you're including those as a storytelling mechanism, what do you need to disclose? I was just at a movie theater a couple weeks ago and I saw that there was this horror film that had lots of blinking lights. And so people who are susceptible to epilepsy and seizures need to have some sort of a warning because this could actually throw them into a physiological reaction that is completely outside of their control. Trauma is similar in the fact that you've gone through some sort of trauma and that there's certain things that are going to trigger that. Then as a society, I don't think we've necessarily figured out how to recognize those triggers or be able to warn people. So there's that dimension. The other dimension is that sort of the response to the person who is having these anxiety attacks from watching this, what Angale says is a white woman who had this anxiety attack and then having somebody who is a person of color then say, well, I'm glad that you experienced that because that is what we are experiencing all the time. And so it's just the fact that the virtual reality as a medium can actually start to give people this experience of the types of terror and anxiety that they may be living with day to day in the context of this environment right now. Now I also like to just look at the symbol of an alien not just literally but also metaphorically because it is talking about the things in society that we are saying are other or that should be exiled or should be not included and the opposite of that is to be embracive and loving and to include all different dimensions of everybody and to you know create this society that is open armed into embracing everybody on the basis of who they are as people, not on the basis of some categories that we're doing and based upon skin color or whatever else. So I think this tension that I think we see playing out, whether it's immigration crises around the world, what is the balance between having open borders and letting people in and prioritizing human rights and being able to see that there's traumas that are happening around the world and that we're all this collective community and we need to be able to take care of other people. That is sort of one side of the perspective. On the other side, there's these limits and constraints of this balance between sovereignty and what it means to have control over your sense of group identities and your and traditions and rules and laws and being able to have, I guess, a sense of safety that comes from those rules. And there's this polar opposite that happens from that sense of that closed and openness that is in some ways kind of this battle that's happening all across the world right now. And I think that the alien as a metaphor is really interesting and pack what it's actually saying, which is they're saying that you are not like us, you are other, and therefore you should be exiled and not fully included. And, you know, it's just something that's up in our culture in terms of how do you resolve these seemingly incommensurate polar opposites that are happening in our culture right now. So it's not like I'm sitting here with any sort of like magical solution for what's going to come to some sort of resolution to these polar opposite perspectives that are happening within our entire world right now. But the one thing that I can say is that the role of art and artist is to be able to tell the stories that are maybe going to allow people to connect to the things that are tying us all together for what it means to be human. we are all humans and we are living on the same planet so what are the sort of universal human experiences that we all have and can we focus on through experiences and through these stories finding those threads that are able to make us feel connected to each other and be able to empathize and find that connection rather than to have our minds or these unconscious biases create these sort of arbitrary disconnections between each other that are creating a lot of these separations between us. And so, you know, how to actually pragmatically do that, I have no idea other than to say that, you know, the power of storytelling and art is going to be a huge part of this. And that, you know, it feels like, you know, in the culture, there's these different culture wars that are really, you know, smashing up against each other and trying to really figure this out. But just to be able to go back to this experience of dinner party, this is just an experience that really symbolically tries to show this energy of this tension of what it feels like on the one hand for someone who's having this transcendent spiritual experience, which is, I guess, in some ways, a metaphor for white privilege of what it means to not have to worry about feeling fear or anxiety when you go out and that, you know, if you do go into a situation, you feel fear. then that could be in some sense an indication of privilege because for some people they feel fear every time they walk out the door or anytime they are just existing day to day. And so it's just like this pervasive experience of terror and anxiety that a lot of people are going through right now, especially people of color and people who feel like they have been exiled by aspects of the mainstream culture. So, The Dinner Party is a great virtual reality piece, and I just also got so many more layers of depth of meaning by being able to talk to both the writers, Laura Wexler and Charlotte Stout, as well as the director here in this interview with Angel Manuel Soto. And I really look forward to seeing where else they take this series of the incident, which is looking at all these other types of paranormal experiences that people go through, and then what is the dimension of belief, and then how does it actually get into these universal human experiences that we all go through. So that's all that I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you'd like to support the podcast, there's a couple of things that you can do. First of all, just tell your friends, spread the word. Don't do any advertising on the Voices of VR. And I basically rely upon word of mouth for people to share the different podcast episodes and to just be this community hub for the virtual reality community to be able to talk about all these different various issues and to unpack what's happening in the field of VR and immersive experiential design. And if you'd like to help financially support the podcast, you can support the podcast through my Patreon. This is a listener supported podcast. And if you'd like to see it continue and to continue to grow, then I really encourage you to give back and contribute to the Patreon. $5 a month is a great amount to be able to contribute and to be able to allow me to continue to do this type of work. So you can donate today and become a member at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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