As a result of the pandemic, it’s difficult to remember a time when virtual events didn’t exist. We somehow managed to survive the isolation of the past 15 months with the help of these now-familiar socially distant meet-ups that happened from the comfort of home.
Realizing how poor a substitute these on-screen events were for real social contact, I muddled through by finding reasons to like them, the main one being I didn’t have to get in a car (or sometimes even a plane) to join them.
Understandably, the question remains whether some companies and organizations will continue to utilize Zoom and other platforms to hold meetings, public programs, and even camp pilgrimages so that people can come together from across town and/or even around the world with just a few clicks of a computer keyboard and no danger of spreading germs.
Still suffering from PCSD (Post-COVID Stress Syndrome) and anxiously living through the very slow process of the world achieving herd immunity, I’ve been dependent on Zoom talks until just recently. Thanks to the miracle of science given us by the vaccine, we’ve now been given permission to eat out, travel, and even enter stores without masks (though wearing one is still a wise option).
Masked and still with some trepidation, last week I ventured out on an airplane for the first time in nearly two years to attend a major New York event that seemed to go from virtual to live almost overnight. Despite my residual fears of pandemic flying and subway danger, I headed out to New York City, where I was lucky enough to be part of a team attending the Tribeca Festival (formerly the Tribeca Film Festival but renamed to be inclusive of projects considered not strictly film).
Thankfully, during the two-week event, every safety protocol was taken extremely seriously, even requiring masks for outdoor events.
With some irony, I was at this very live event for a project whose category used the word “virtual” in a very different sense. Virtual reality or immersive technology has become a part of many film festivals, and our project, “A Life in Pieces: The Diary and Letters of Stanley Hayami,” was one of them. For those unschooled like me in VR, it uses computer technology to transport viewers to a moving three-dimensional environment with the wearing of headsets intended to place viewers inside a space apart from the one you’re actually standing in.
I was enlisted for the project because I had done a documentary (“A Flicker in Eternity”) about the story behind it: a promising young man who kept an illuminating diary while imprisoned at Heart Mountain and then wrote letters from the front after joining the 442nd RCT. A talented writer and gifted artist, Stanley Hayami created a diary of illuminating prose and art that is not only a precious artifact at JANM but the perfect vehicle for telling the camp story both vividly and virtually.
Stanley’s incarnation in VR was selected as one of a dozen immersive pieces featured at this world-class festival. Nearly three years in the making by the groundbreaking VR director Nonny de la Pena and the Emblematic Group in conjunction with the Japanese American National Museum and Densho, “A Life in Pieces” utilized such familiar things as sophisticated animation and archival footage to achieve effects, as well as unfamiliar (to me) techniques like photogrammetry and other technology to make things jump off the screen.
Not knowing what to expect in this category that used ahead-of-my-time technology to tell a story, I was taken aback by the number of projects that filled one gigantic high-ceilinged room and several smaller ones at Tribeca’s Spring Studio while docents busily disinfected and assisted in the careful wearing of state-of-the-art headsets. This wide new technology uses acronyms like XR to encompass VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality) and MR (mixed reality) to describe creative projects that go far beyond the flat screen that audiences are used to.
Even though I often felt out of my league, I got to enjoy all the perks that a first-class festival had to offer. There was enough schmoozing and liquid partying to keep everyone happy, but by far the best part was my spending time talking to those who knew little about our own familiar wartime history while at the same time getting the opportunity to rave about the story of the young man behind it all.
Stanley comes alive in this immersive project with the help of actor Kurt Kanazawa, who brought his heart to portray this soulmate who died trying to save a fellow soldier during heavy combat in the Italian Apennines. On the “Voices of VR” podcast, Nonny, Kurt, and I got the opportunity to talk about this teenaged soldier who made us see life through his hopeful eyes. While sharing his story, I was wishing this young man who had clearly captured our hearts would do the same for the youthful VR enthusiasts who otherwise never would’ve heard of him.
It was great experiencing the whole Tribeca excitement with this tri-generational team as we tromped around the city that never sleeps. It was typified by the three of us hopping on New York Citi Bikes like we knew what we were doing and racing from Soho to the Battery from one event to another on electric bikes that frighteningly defied speed limits, always staying close in each other’s sight.
Stanley’s story seemed to bring together this Latina VR director, mixed Asian American actor, and me for a synchronous reason: to make sure that the story of someone who died for his country while his family was imprisoned be told at different places in different ways so that we never, ever forget it.
Angelenos will have the opportunity to experience this VR piece when it opens at JANM on July 9 for an extended run. If you are at all curious about how a teenaged boy in 1942 can come to life in 2021, I encourage all of you to make an appointment to reserve a headset to experience it in all its VR glory. The merging of past and future will hopefully blow your mind.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.