“It’s the same with me,” he adds. “I’ve been programming film events for the past 15 years and I thought I was pretty much across where film is at but it was only at MIFF a couple of years ago that it really occurred to me how far VR had moved from my preconceptions of it.”
Like 3D before it, Virtual Reality has been touted by evangelists as the future of filmmaking for decades. But only with the emergence of lightweight affordable headsets in the past five years or so has this emergent medium begun to find both the audience and the community of content creators to begin fulfilling at least a little of that promise.
To date, the biggest commercial opportunities have been in gaming and non-narrative applications, such as virtual real estate inspections.
But the fact the wearer of a headset can be transported into a completely foreign environment also lends itself to certain forms of storytelling too – particularly immersive documentary and first-person tales. Trouble is, outside of film festivals and special events at the likes of ACMI, such films have been virtually (sorry) impossible to find.
So it is that Berger is programming, in what is believed to be an Australian first, one VR film a month, to play alongside regular film sessions. And for anyone with a ticket, the experience will be completely free.
He’s got two headsets set up in the foyer, and they will play the same VR film simultaneously, four sessions per regular film (the idea is you come early to watch the VR, or stay after you’ve watched your movie on the big screen). That’s a deliberate attempt to counter what some critics see as the great limitation of VR in the cinema – the fact it so totally isolates its user from the people around them (which can sometimes give rise to the odd spectacle of people gathering to watch the jerky movements and shocked response of the oblivious person in the headset).
“A lot of people come to the cinema in pairs, and you do want to talk about [a VR experience] with a friend afterwards, just like you do with a film,” Berger explains.
He’s got his first three films lined up: a short immersive documentary on the artist RONE’s recent installation at Burnham Beeches; Carriberrie, an exploration of indigenous dance; and Monster, a first-person story about a former Nazi skinhead in America.
But does he ultimately see a time when every one of the 57 seats in the cinema is occupied by a headset-wearing VR fan, like those 3D-goggle-wearing folk from the 1950s on the poster on the wall outside his picture house?
“Probably not,” he says. “I think the future of VR is that people will be watching this content at home.”
There’s just no escaping the isolating effect of VR, even if you do watch with a friend, he says.
“You’re missing out, in my opinion, on all the things that make a cinema like ours different and interesting – having other people around you, being in a different environment, getting out of the house, having a glass of wine beside you.
“It’s pretty difficult to have drink wine when you’ve got a headset on – it gets quite messy.”
Karl Quinn is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.