The Roxie Theater Experiments with Virtual Reality Screening

Roxie Virtual Cinema invites viewers to don VR goggles in 'Ask No Questions' documentary presentation.

It has been a little over a month since the Roxie Virtual Cinema opened on March 25, bringing the Roxie Theater’s curated programming to audiences online while the theater remains closed per the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order.

While movies that otherwise would have played at the Roxie account for the bulk of Virtual Cinema, it is also a space that replicates — as best as it can — the entire indie theater experience. For example, in addition to taking in films, viewers are also invited to participate in Q&As.

A recent screening of the 1970 documentary Gay San Francisco — presented by the Tenderloin Museum — attracted viewers from as far away as London and Buenos Aires.

On April 28, the Roxie Virtual Cinema brings another unique opportunity to its audience with a virtual reality presentation of the 2020 documentary Ask No Questions. Presented by Lofty Sky Pictures, with support from SF DocFest, proceeds from the event go to the Roxie.

The film premiered in January at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, but the ongoing pandemic has grounded its festival run for now. The solution for Ask No Questions co-director Jason Loftus and his partners is this foray into what they are calling their “VR Movie House” initiative.

“One of the things that is so important to me [in screening a film] is when you have an audience and you’re there with the audience and then you interact with the audience afterwards,” says Loftus from his home in Toronto.

“That shared experience is very hard to replicate and I wouldn’t argue that VR is fully capable of replicating that, but I think it brings us closer than other alternatives,” he says. “It was really this effort to replicate as much as possible that shared experience, and particularly that kind of connection and interaction with an audience that happens at a festival.”

A long-time producer whose work runs the gamut from documentary to virtual reality, animation, and narrative games, in Ask No Questions Loftus makes his directorial debut in partnership with Eric Pedicelli. The documentary investigates a January 23, 2001 incident when seven alleged Falun Gong adherents self-immolated in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

The film questions the official version of an event that devastated the reputation of Falun Gong — not just in China, but around the world. Founded in 1992, the Falun Gong religious practice combines meditation and exercise and is based on the tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance. But images of mass suicide caught on video suggested something much more sinister lay at the heart of Falun Gong.

Ask No Questions recounts not just the self-immolation, but also the experiences of Chen Ruichang, a long-time television newsman in China who was imprisoned for his association with Falun Gong.

Loftus, a longtime practitioner of Falun Gong, also appears in the film. That was not originally part of the plan, but when the authorities put pressure on his family and business associates in China, that changed.

“It became something quite personal,” Loftus says.

Ultimately, Ask No Questions becomes a story of buried facts and an oppressive government, which uses state media to manipulate public perception. Loftus is aware of the parallels between what happened in 2001 and China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as it emerged in Wuhan.

“The reality is these things the Falun Gong community has faced and the example we’re able to show through this film, unfortunately is extremely current and topical,” Loftus says. “It is not a one-off case. It is the nature of the regime and how things happen in China. I hope it can give us some insight, because I do think what the current situation shows us with COVID-19 is there is a very real human cost to a lack of freedom of information.”

Ask No Questions screens four times on April 28, in a 3D theatrical environment made possible by San Francisco startup Bigscreen VR. Filmmaker Q&As will follow each screening. In order to participate, viewers will need their own VR devices. To check for device compatibility before purchasing tickets to the event, visit bigscreenvr.com.

“I think what makes Roxie Virtual Cinema special is that it is giving our members and our patrons a place to kind of continue to connect and allow the Roxie to continue to be a curator and a tastemaker at a time when there is just so much content that you can watch at any moment,” says Roxie Executive Director Lex Sloan.

“Jason pitched this experiment and I said the Roxie has always done wild and weird and boundary-pushing programming, that sounds right up our alley. Nothing will ever take the place of coming together and having conversations face to face in real time with filmmakers, sharing space with one another and laughing and crying. VR and virtual cinema won’t take the place of that, but during this time, how can we approximate that?”

Loftus says it was important to him that the Roxie played a central role in the screening.

“It was important for us to draw attention to the Roxie and to the art-house cinemas in general, because what we’re trying to focus on with this particular digital screening is to create a little bit of that experience of a shared viewing of a film and the ability to interact, at least through avatars in the virtual space with the filmmakers,” he says. “That shared experience is something the art-house cinemas provide to independent filmmakers that is so important, so we wanted to draw attention to that by replicating some of it but also highlighting that what they do in physical reality is so important.”

Roxie Virtual Cinema: “Ask No Questions” — April 28; 10 a.m., 1 p.m., 4 p.m., 7 p.m. Tickets are pay what you choose, with suggested donations beginning at $5. All proceeds benefit the Roxie Theatre. Purchase tickets here.

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