When filmmaker Janicza Bravo began researching the death of a cousin asphyxiated by Brooklyn cops in the summer of 1999, she was incensed. “I looked him up and there were two articles about the incident, one in the Daily News and one in the Post. One was a couple of paragraphs, the other was just one, but both were very much about the event. Neither was about who he was, where he came from, his life, his children, or his partner,” Bravo tells The Creators Project. “That was really heartbreaking to me, you know? That a person could live a full life and be deduced to one or two paragraphs about how they lost their life.”
Bravo feeds on these feelings, tackling police brutality in her virtual reality directorial debut, Hard World for Small Things, which screened first at Sundance, then at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Virtual Arcade this year. When viewers strap on a headset, they are transported to the backseat of a convertible, cruising around Los Angeles with a group of friends who discuss their lives, dreams, and the books they have read. The film cuts to the quick by imbuing its characters with life and personality, making tragedy, when it strikes, all the more heartbreaking.
A prolific young writer and director, Bravo made her filmmaking debut in 2011, with the _VICE_-produced comedic short Eat!, and her 2014 film Gregory Go Boom, starring Michael Cera, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. For her first foray into VR, Bravo delved into unfamiliar territory, trading her signature dark comedies for a heartfelt examination of injustice. “I have no interest in making work that makes people feel bad about who they are,” Bravo says. “It’s not what I’m interested in. But I am interested in making work that challenges perceptions of oneself. I thought the most compelling way to tell this story was to introduce the viewer to a community that I don’t think most viewers have experienced. I really thought about it as a front row seat into a community.”
Anthony Batt, co-founder of Wevr and an executive producer on the film, thinks the act of witnessing is one aspect that makes Hard World for Small Things incredibly moving. “People have an elevated experience in Janicza’s piece right when they get in the car and it pulls away. When you’re immersed, it feels like watching a memory or reliving part of a dream, and something happens in the brain that elevates it. When you add a tragic element or important moment, it affects you differently than it would watching it on a screen ten feet away or on a phone at arm’s length,” he says.
Bravo imbues the medium with so much heart, leveraging first-person perspective to such poignant effect that it comes as a surprise that she was averse to the idea of VR filmmaking at first. “A lot of it came from feeling like this space is very technical, cold, and lacking a heartbeat. I didn’t feel like it had as much soul as I would want,” she says. But once they started work on the piece, Bravo realized VR more closely mirrored rehearsing a play than shooting a film. The process relies on blocking and chemistry to create dynamic scenes, since in a 360-degree environment, what you see is what you get. The result is a stunning, multi-dimensional glimpse into her characters’ lives. “At its core, Hard World is essentially supposed to be more than that one paragraph. It’s supposed to be a little more meat on a full life,” Bravo says.
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