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Astra Film Festival

Astra Film Festival 2016


Astra Film Festival 2016 brings a brand new programme of immersive documentaries made with the use of up to date technologies for various platforms: online interactive 360° webdocumentaries, VR and 360° video projects for individual viewing, and full-dome films designed for dome cinema theatres, that preserve the classical experience of collective viewing.


Immersive Documentary: From representation to experience

The interactive / new media documentary is a new type of non-fiction cinema, which provides an inovative access to knowledge and exploration of reality, and offers new methods to tell a story. As a common trait, all these projects lie at the junction between interactive digital technology and documentary cinema practice.

2016 is a year when major film festivals worldwide have proclaimed an interest in immersive cinema. It is also the year of a turning point in the evolution of new media technologies, with a variety of consumer devices launched on the market and made accessible for the public.

If documentary film aims to cast light on realities of our contemporary world, to reach into the intimacy of the human condition, to increase awareness on environmental issues, to challenge the viewers' prejudice and to make them think outside their comfort zone, immersive cinema comes with an approach which is entirely different, as it aspires to create a space for new cinematic experiences. These spaces invite the audience inside a re-created scenario of the story where they can access virtual versions of the place, and can participate as witnesses or even as actors in the events, having access to images, sounds and emotions in  an unprecedented way.

Immersive cinema, or 360° cinema is the ultimate cinematografic experience. There is no screen interposed between spectator and film. Instead, the viewer is wrapped in a cocoon of images and sounds, which transport him from his reality to that of the film.

A future when the cinematic experience is participative and the audience can interact with the story and change its course is not far away, and the filmmakers of today have the necessary tools at hand to create projects belonging to a new stage in the evolution of non-fiction cinema.

Immersion also means an increased potential in creating empathy, since the users feel closer to tridimensional characters and have an almost real experience of places, life stories and ideas related to them. One of the goals of these projects is to add the empathic element to abstract understanding.

To sum up, we cam safely say that non-fiction cinema has entered the new era of immersive cinema, moving from representation to experience and inviting the audience not only to look at but to become part of the reality in question.


Both technologies make it possible to experience realities different from our own. Whith a headset on, the real space vanishes and the user can step into the virtual world, surrounded 360° by its images and people, making empathic communication possible. No other technology has managed so far such a dramatic turn, from receiving information about something that has happened to actually live it. The illusion is so powerful that all his senses will tell the user he is present in that particular place, with those particular people.

The inovation immersive cinema brings to the non-fiction genre is the possibility to use such projects as inspirational tools for social change. The concept draws on Atticus Finch's philosophy “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” An increasing number of virtual worlds are designed with the aim to change attitudes to the better, and to prompt the user to be more compasionate, more empathic. By putting the viewer into the action and giving him the role of an active witness, digital storytelling can facilitate life-changing experiences for an audience no longer passive, but actively involved.

The relationship between the created reality and the role of the user differs from one project to the other. Either the spectator enters the story as a character, or he becomes a witness.

Walking in the character's skin / characters and POVs

Assent puts the viewer into the reconstructed memory of the filmmaker's father, who witnessed the execution of a group of prisoners captured by the Caravan of Death during the Chilean civil war, while The Unknown Photographer creates a reality based on fragments of memories of a hypotetic WW1 photographer. Notes on Blindness: A Journey Into a World Beyond Sight provides first-hand experience on how it is to be blind, and ”6x9” A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement gives the taste of life in a confinement cell as experienced by seven ex-inmates. The project Across the line takes the viewer to a, every-day American reality, the anti-abortion groups who shout slogans and shame the patients in front of perfectly legal abortion clinics.

VR projects take us into a tridimensional world, a computer-generated fictional universe similar to those in computer games, waiting to be explored. With this new technology, the user can move into a tridimensional space and interact with the objects he finds thee. Sharing means understanding. The user is isolated in a digital space, but at the same time he eases to be a passive spectator and becomes part of the virtual reality. He is able to act and interact, and therefore feel part of the action.

Often the 3D computer-generated space is a replica of real spaces in the real world. Scenes and dialogues are captured from the phisical world and used in the virtual one, emphasizing the concept that the viewers participate in a documentary story. For example, there are video sequences placed in key-points in the virtual landscape, to remind the user that the space might be computer-generated, but it is based on a real story. The sum of these experiences make the line between re-enactment and cinema verité less distinct.

When talking about video 360°, things are a little different. This technique is based on the capacity to view everything around oneself from a fixed point. The spectator will accept the role of a passive viewer and will observe the spheric world without having real agency.

Between contemplative observer and witness

What would it be like to travel with the London tube seconds before the terror attacks on July 7th, 2005? Witness 360: 7/7 tells the story of one of the survivers. The film combines her personal account with reconstructed sequences and abstract images. As a result, the viewer is invited to embark on a multi-sensorial trip and live an event the witness will never forget.

In Kiya, the viewer becomes the awkward witness of an episode of domestic violence, when two sisters try to save the third one from being killed by her ex. Two distinctive 911 calls put the viewer right in the middle of the unfolding events.

Giant is based on the real story of a family who must find ways to survive physically and mentally in a war zone.

While immersive video 360° and VR projects are still in search for an artistic language of their own, from the technical point of view they have to develop better systems for following the movements, and find more natural ways for the users to interact with the artificial universe.


While with video 360° we have surround vision from a fixed point, 360° web documentaries provide the possibility to experience the story by surfing through clusters of information. An integrated multimedia with photos, text, audio, maps, written documents, infographic etc. give the user the visual clues he needs to surf to the parts of the story he is most interested in.

Three of the webdocumentaries in our selection use the Google Street View interface. Dublin Rising is a virtual city tour with testimonies from the past. Criers for Medellin plunges on the busy streets of the Colombian city and follows its most deprived citizens, who struggle to make a living out of selling traditional objects. Street Art Google, Audio Tours is a global project, with the Google Street View interface functioning as an archive of transient street art items while the hidden stories behind them are available in audio format.

Experience-cern360 and Japan Earthquake chronicle with the help of images and testimonials dramatic changes that occured in the aftermath of disasters.

Polar Sea is an online magazine with integrated 360 experience on the impact of climate change on the inhabitants of Antarctica.

With the help of interviews, Out of My Window explores the human factor in the urban life and vertical living in different parts of the world. What does the world look like from the window of a concrete skyscraper? The design of the interface uses collage techniques.

The selection incudes three Romanian productions documenting subjects related to communism by means of interactive photographic tours: the prison in Râmnicu Sărat, a virutal exhibition about abortion in communist Romania and the fate of cinema theatres, using the film depot in Cluj as a case study.


Fulldome refers to immersive dome-based video projection environments. The dome, horizontal or tilted, is filled with real-time (interactive) or pre-rendered (linear) computer animations, live capture images, or composited environments. Although the current technology emerged in the early-to-mid 1990s, fulldome environments have evolved from numerous influences, including immersive art and storytelling, with technological roots in domed architecture, planetariums, multi-projector film environments, flight simulation, and virtual reality. While keeping some of the old planetarium themes in their repertoire, such as films about the outer space, the movement of the planets, the oceans a.s.o, dome cinemas are the place for visual artists to present their new media works. A screen surrounding the spectator and sounds coming from everywhere concur to create an environment with the spectator at its core.

Fulldome films are yet in their early days. The new environment opens new possibilities to filmmakers and visual artists, who can experiment with new cinema language.

There are eight fulldome films in our selection, out of which three are designed for the Astra Film Junior programme. The young spectators will view Dream to Fly about the most ambitious dream of humanity, and The Blind Man With Starry Eyes and The Longest Night: A Winter’s Tale, two beautiful fairy tales on man and nature.

The other fulldome films provide exciting experiences of the Northern Lights, great battles of WW2, the movements of reindeers under the arctic sky, the great astronomers of antiquity, and the mystery of the migratory birds' ways.

(Adela Muntean)