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Today at the Sundance Film Festival we're premiering Traveling While Black, a new VR documentary that immerses the viewer in the long history of restricted movement for Black Americans. Directed by Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams and co-directed with Ayesha Nadarajah and Emmy-Award winning directors Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël, the project was created in collaboration with The New York Times Op-Docs. It's available today on Rift, Oculus Go, and on the NYT Op-Docs page.
"It started as a need to talk about this forgotten period,” Williams told us. “It's about connecting the past to the present and explaining to people that we, as Black people in America, are at risk every time we step out the front door. There's a history that makes you anxious and tense because you carry it with you everywhere you go.”
Traveling While Black began in 2010 when Broadway and Executive Producer Bonnie Nelson Schwartz premiered a play called “The Green Book” at the Lincoln Theatre next to Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C. It starred Julian Bond as Victor Green, creator of the Green Book, a guide for Black travelers during segregation. Nelson Schwartz then partnered with Williams to produce Traveling While Black, which was developed by Felix & Paul Studios, the Emmy-winning team behind “The People's House.”
"I hope Traveling While Black sparks a conversation that inspires real solutions and awareness,” Williams told us. “If this film asks the right questions and gets people to think about this ongoing crisis in America — not avoid or gloss over it, just to have a profound discussion about race in America instead of looking the other way — then we’ve succeeded.”
Op-Docs, The New York Times Opinion section’s series of award-winning short documentaries, was also a producer on the piece. Traveling While Black will be the premiere of the 300th Op-Doc — a 360 version of the film will live on the Op-Docs site as well as on Oculus Go and Oculus Rift headsets.
“Traveling While Black stands out as a timely, impactful look on the history and present tense reality of being black in America,” said Kathleen Lingo, editorial director for film & TV for The New York Times. “Op-Docs is honored to publish it as our 300th film that both has a strong point of view and uses the innovative storytelling space of VR to tackle such an important subject.”
While the film's narrative is rooted in the past, VR is an ideal medium for experiencing this chapter in American history, Williams said:
"You can really experience the pain of the people talking to you and telling you their stories. You can see into their faces in a way that doesn't let you look away. That's something only VR can give you."
At the Sundance Film Festival
Traveling While Black will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival New Frontier exhibit starting today — you can learn more about getting tickets here. For attendees in Park City, Oculus's Yelena Rachitsky will be moderating a panel about VR filmmaking on 1/25 featuring both Williams and Félix Lajeunesse (details here). And The New York Times is hosting a discussion between Williams and the author and journalist Brent Staples (details here).
— The Oculus Team