/ 2 April 2021

The Portfolio: Virtual-reality filmmaker Shelley Barry

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Embodiment: Shelley Barry’s film Here bears witness to the thousands of people living with disabilities who were part of the struggle to end apartheid but were never properly acknowledged for their role. (Photo: Aimee Viljoen)

Virtual reality (VR) is a technology designed to facilitate the experiential nature of digital narratives by teleporting you into the world of story. No frames, no squares, no rectangles. You’re there. Inside the narrative. The power of Shelley Barry’s VR film, Here, is that it captures an uncanny sense of presence in the medium of VR, which is all about “being there”.

French VR filmmaker Celine Tricart says: “Embodiment is the most powerful contribution of VR as it tricks our senses into thinking we are physically present in the virtual environment”. 

Barry’s stroke of genius in the making of Here, is that she is the cinematographer, and the VR camera rig was mounted above her head, as she shot the film from her wheelchair. This way, when you watch her film, you become Barry.

And, when you watch the film at the RapidLion Film Festival, you will be seated in a wheelchair. What this means, in terms of the experience of this film, is that you will be teleported into Barry’s body. This is a profound experience for an able-bodied person. 

Here artfully returns the ableist gaze. This is not intended as a simulation. It’s so much more profound to step into the body of another human being and see the world through their eyes. And no, it’s not about the “empathy machine” discourse popularised by Chris Milk. Here takes you deeper into a journey of consciousness, where the struggle for freedom is also a struggle for bodies who do not conform to the so-called norm. 

Here is rooted in disability politics. Barry was shot at the age of 25 and became an active member of Disabled People South Africa, the organisation that spearheaded the disability rights movement, through which people living with disabilities contributed enormously to the freedom struggle in South Africa. This fact is seldom discussed in the public discourse of the anti-apartheid struggle. Here is an ode to the unsilenced voices of the 12 000-odd activists who protested against apartheid. This VR film bears witness to the history of people in wheelchairs, on crutches and walking with canes who toyi-toyied for freedom.

The RapidLion 2021 pan-African VR showcase celebrates the many techno-ancestors with the power to beam us into parallel worlds of imagination, like San cave paintings, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and African modes of orality, mythology and sage wisdom. All these technologies share the capacity to reimagine past, present and future narratives to describe our shared African humanity. Gazing backwards from the past into the future, Hlumelo Biko’s book  Africa Reimagined — Reclaiming a Sense of Abundance and Prosperity, describes insightfully how we should prepare for the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) in Africa.

VR, as a tool of 4IR, creates the need to mobilise Afrocentric technopolitics to futureproof our collective interests. The pan-African VR showcase is a contribution to this conversation; to reflect on the critical questions around 4IR in Africa. 

How do we harness 4IR technologies to challenge colonial gazes of African futures? How do we build networks of collective co-operation and professional action to connect social capital across the continent? Biko invites us to see Africa as a “superpower” where the borders and boundaries of 55 nation-states have been erased, enabling African countries to consolidate resources, and multiply global bargaining power. 

The RapidLion VR showcase is an instance of activating this network of human and social capital that crisscrosses the African continent, stitching together a net of virtual interconnectedness.

RapidLion 2021 takes place at The Market Theatre in Joburg, from 5 to 11 April.