Deep Dive into Canadian XR – Portrait of Patricia Bergeron (Leitmotiv)

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Deep Dive into Canadian XR – Portr ...

As part of an initiative led by the cultural services of the French Embassy in Canada, with the support of the Consulate General of France in Québec, coordinated by Alliance Française de Vancouver in partnership with Xn Québec, we are proposing a series of portraits of the XR industry in Canada. Through this series of portraits which discuss the history and vision of these companies, we invite you to discover the talents behind the immersive and techno-creative studios listed in our database of XR in Canada.

For this eighth portrait, we spoke with Patricia Bergeron (Productions Leitmotiv) about her project Hotspot VR.

This interview with Patricia Bergeron was led by Philippe Bédard (Québec/Canada XR)

Profile

Patricia Bergeron produces documentaries as well as narrative films, shorts as well as features, but also more recently, virtual reality projects. In 2013, she started Leitmotiv. However, Patricia has been working in the realm of digital productions and with the questions raised by new technologies since long before VR’s revival in the mid-2010s. Already in 2003, during her time at the National Film Board, Patricia initiated and directed Citizen Shift, a Web project whose goal was to help build communities of interest, but also to promote exchanges. “I’ve always been interested in how best to tell a story and reach people,” says Patricia. In this context, digital technologies and new media have long established themselves as passions parallel to Patricia’s life as a producer.

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The journey that interests us today — the one that will lead us to Hotspot  — begins in 2017 at an event organized by the NFB, the Quartier des spectacles and MUTEK which brought together about fifteen women working in the field of immersive media. “While I was there, I met Clara García Fraile from the Netherlands and we started thinking about migration, passports, borders, and about what it meant to tell the story of a place where you can’t be.”

The issue of migration is an important topic that affects us all. This is also an issue of particular concern to Patricia. It is while researching the subject that the producer came across the concept of “hotspot,” i.e. places – particularly in Greece and Italy, starting in 2015 – set up to process newcomers, take their fingerprints, give them a number, etc. As the director explains,  “to begin with, fingerprints are a sensitive subject at the political level, because all of a sudden a whole population is listed in Frontex files [The European Border and Coast Guard Agency]”. 

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Untitled 2

Patricia  asked herself,  “what is it like to arrive at a  hotspot? How are these hotspots managed?” At the same time, Amnesty International had reported cases of ill-treatment and police violence in Sicilian hotspots. This is what drew Patricia to these particular hotspots. “What you have to remember,” Patricia reminds us, “is that people don’t understand each other: people who arrive don’t usually speak Italian and Italians rarely speak another language. So there is a question of mediation that must be asked.”

A first version of the project that was to become Hotspot was submitted to the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ) in the digital exploration programme. The project was ambitious, with three chapters telling three stories of migrants, mixing theatre and virtual reality, and it won a first grant. Patricia was then invited to the 2nd edition of  the Atelier Grand Nord VR (now known as Atelier Grand Nord XR), which took place at PHI Centre in 2017. “All of a sudden, the project became more tangible,” Patricia recalls. This first round of funding would have been enough to develop the project, but to finance the production, Patricia also filed and obtained a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.

Case Study: Hotspot

After presenting her project in development at Atelier Grand Nord VR, Patricia finally went to Italy for the research phase of Hotspot:  “I went to Sicily twice, including a two-month stay in a small village near a hotspot.There, I was able to meet migrants, cultural mediators, police officers; in other words, the entire ecosystem of the hotspot.” That being said, it was still not clear exactly what the story would be, nor how it would be told.

 

For Patricia, the question of the point of view is primordial: “I didn’t want people to take on the role of migrants or police officers. This would have limited us to a story that was too ‘black and white’.” The solution revealed itself during Patricia’s last trip to Sicily, where the director tells us she spent a lot of time with cultural mediators. “It’s there,” she says, “I had a Eureka moment and I thought, ‘This is who we could be!’”.

Contrary to the antagonistic positions of migrants and police officers, mediators serve an intermediary role. For Patricia, “it is a position that can reveal several limits; of humanity, of experience, of naivety.” So this is where it all started for Hotspot; the last piece of the puzzle. “All of a sudden, I had found the position in which I wanted to put viewers.”

Being yourself

At the risk of repeating ourselves, the question of point of view is central to Patricia and to her project Hotspot. “Something has been bothering me for a few years with VR,” she admits. “Even though I actually love VR, sometimes I feel like I’m being manipulated.” The problem in question relates to projects that insist on putting us in the shoes of a character, especially when it comes to marginalized or vulnerable individuals. According to Patricia, “this is something we have often done in virtual reality, especially with the issue of human rights or the issue of migrants. All of a sudden, we want to get people in positions of privilege to put themselves in a situation of poverty or violence. I believe this is not the right approach.”

 

As we saw in our portrait of Infinite Frame Media and their project  The Choice, Patricia believes it’s more interesting to ask viewers to be themselves. “Who or what do we become in virtual reality,” she prompts. In this case, according to Patricia, “you can’t really become someone other than yourself. You stay yourself, simply in virtual reality.”  

Hotspot. © Dominique Morissette

Virtual reality can transport us to new places, even new realities. In a way, this allows us to explore new contexts, new landmarks, but not new identities. “In my opinion, it’s a richer experience to be confronted with yourself. What I love about entering virtual reality is being transported to a new world, but still as myself and seeing how that new world affects me? ».

So how did Patricia handle the viewers’ relationship to the topic in Hotspot?

Public Presentation - Hotspot , Chapter 1 (Montreal 2019)

After a detour to Switzerland as part of the World VR Forum in the spring of 2018 – for  a reunion of the projects of the Atelier Grand Nord VR – Patricia embarked on the production for Hotspot, the objective being to present a prototype the project at Rencontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal (RIDM) in the fall of 2019. More specifically, as the project included a virtual reality part and a theatrical component, the goal was for the RIDM representations to include live actors. 

“The VR project was not yet complete, but for this series of performances we managed to have the spectators experience the theatrical component.” The latter included an actor who played a policeman and another who played a migrant. “People didn’t always understand what was going on — the policeman spoke Italian, the migrant spoke Bambara — which was intended. I wanted to destabilize the public,” Patricia recalls.

Hotspot. © Dominique Morissette

Following the onboarding, the experience began with a virtual reality portion, around three minutes in duration and for groups of five people at a time. It was a gentle introduction: the voice of a man who, in Italian, tells the story of  Sicily. Then, participants took off their helmets and discovered the room where they were: a simple room, objects on the table, a poster that reveals the place: a hotspot. “These were clues… but soon the theatre began. It’s a very poignant, participatory kind of theatre.” 

The policeman interrogates the migrant while the spectators, sitting at the table with them, simply observe. At one point, the migrant indicates that her story is in the helmets. Participants put the headset back on for a second 7-minute VR segment. In this segment, they meet a cultural mediator. Again, they remove the helmet and still find themselves in the heart of the performance, a dramatic situation still needing to be settled.

At this point, “people could come out of the experience with tools that would help them intervene,” Patricia explains. “It was very immersive theatre. Several people cried. It was emotionally charged,” she adds.

As noted earlier, the originality of the project remains that throughout these interactions, each member of the audience remained themselves. “It may be shocking to some, even provocative, but I believe you can’t be someone other than yourself in virtual reality.” Following the VR experience, as a form of offboarding, Patricia was waiting for visitors to present, through videos she shot in Italy, the cultural mediators she met during her research. During RIDM in 2019, the project was presented more than 60 times in its then-current 25 minute, hybrid VR/immersive theatre format.

The future of Hotspot - Chapter two

At the end of 2019, the project received support from SODEC for short-format narrative digital projects. In March 2020, Patricia was scheduled to visit CPH:DOX as part of the SODEC_Lab program with Hotspot, as well as the Sheffield Doc/Fest Market, followed by the NewImages Forum. The project was also selected to be presented with actors in a revised Spanish-language version at a human rights festival in Spain. Of course, all these plans had to be shelved due to the pandemic. At this time, Patricia says she was surprised, during (virtual) discussions as part of the Doc/Fest, by the opposing views of the European and American guests. In this case, several American guests were adamant that the pandemic signalled the end of location-based virtual reality in situ. This was troubling, seeing as the strength of Hotspot comes precisely from the integration of virtual reality within a theatrical component (ergo necessarily location-based). Faced with these new sanitary measures, it was therefore necessary to find a way to transform the experience so that the VR component could stand on its own.

Since the summer of 2021, after producing a feature film, Patricia has resumed work on the second chapter of Hotspot. This new chapter goes in another direction, where the theatrical component will play second fiddle to VR, now at the forefront of the experience. As Patricia explains: “Things have changed a lot since the project started in 2017. Technologies have also advanced a lot! ». In the meantime, Patricia has earned another grant from the CALQ to help her complete the second phase of the project.

A story in which you are not the hero

The second chapter of Hotspot is designed to be lived individually rather than in a group, unlike the first episode. “For me, the presentation of projects is a fundamental aspect. You have to think about how the audience is introduced to the story.” Especially in this still budding period of the XR, it is important to think about the conditions in which the public is made to live an experience. This can start from the simple fact of choosing to have audiences sitting or standing, but we can think further too. “We also need to create a safe space around the user to let them move their bodies and use their hands.” This is what drives Patricia to want to make the next chapter of Hotspot a more accessible experience from the outset. For example, this new chapter is for Oculus Quest 2 headsets.  

As in the first chapter, Hotspot’s second chapter is still centred on an encounter with a migrant. However, it will be a migrant who has not managed to complete the journey and who, while introducing himself and over the course of the experience, takes us down with him to the bottom of the Mediterranean. “It’s a tragic story, but it’s also very beautiful. It will confront us.” 

Other things have changed in the way Patricia and her team approach Hotspot’s topic, as well as the immersive experience it offers. “In the first chapter, I started from a text and I wanted the team to follow it.” Meanwhile, the text of the second chapter has not yet been written. Patricia explains that the experiential design will take precedence for this next version: “We started from a journey and an experience, and the text will follow”. Nevertheless, the text will be constructed from the hours of interviews conducted by Patricia during her research stays in and around Sicilian hotspots.  “Yes, it’s fiction,” she admits, “but it’s based on documentary narratives. Everything starts from their testimonies, their stories, their memories, and the words they use to express them.”

This second chapter is in full production and will be ready for distribution in the summer of 2022.

Challenges and lessons

After a few years and several iterations of Hotspot, Patricia comes away with some important lessons. In particular, that we should adjust our ambitions for the current context. “In fact,” she clarifies, “the means of our ambitions are not here yet.” At least, this is the case for indie projects that are not designed first and foremost to generate a return on investment. According to Patricia, we must therefore adjust our ambitions. In the end, it’s always the same challenge: how to do a lot with few resources, without losing sight of what’s essential.

Another lesson that Patricia gives us: we need to know when to act. Of course, patience is required, but there comes a time when development and prototyping must give way to a more active phase.

Finally, as Patricia reminds us so well, we must also surround ourselves with a team of people who share the same values as you and with whom it is pleasant to work. “I enjoy working with passionate people around the world. We become something more than the sum of our parts when we start working together.”

 

Collaborators (Chapter 1 and 2)

Ghassan Fayad : Producer
Colas Wohlfahrt : Creative direction
Ali Kays : Artistic direction 
Azza Hussein: Illustration
Louis Thériault-Boivin : Creative developer (chapter 2)

For the first showing at RIDM (nov. 2019):

The performers were : Rachel Mwanza and Pierre Pinchiaroli.

 

Mapping XR in Canada

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