It’s always a challenge to decide how and when to use new technology to change and improve the way we communicate. You have to experiment, but discriminate. Try new things, but be prepared to put them aside if they don’t actually meet the needs of the audience. Sometimes a story can best be told by drawing it in the sand with your fingertip. But other times the latest thing really can fill a niche in a unique way.
We documentary filmmakers have always been susceptible to the lure of new technology – new toys, and we can use them at work, yes! Virtual reality (VR) is no exception. As VR cameras become increasingly accessible, there is one fascinating sector in which our enthusiasm is fully justified: documenting endangered world language and ritual before it’s lost. This is just what Chouette Films is doing as part of an innovative multi-disciplinary project, the Multimedia Yasna (MUYA) funded by the European Research Council and directed by Professor Almut Hintze at SOAS, University of London. Within MUYA’s interactive online platform of transcribed manuscripts and editorial tools, translations, and commentaries of the Avestan Yasna, Chouette Films is producing the VR as well as a 2D complete enactment of the ancient Zoroastrian Yasna ritual. Information which was formerly restricted to students of Iranian philology and practising Zoroastrians will now become accessible to a worldwide audience.
What’s unique about VR for both language and ritual documentation is that it enables the filmmaker to remove themselves from the scene, unlocking an exciting opportunity for unprecedented collaboration between the filmed and those filming. As by definition rituals follow prescriptive rules, they are the ideal platform for allowing the filmed subjects to take over complete control of the events and lead the story with minimal intervention from the film crew. The VR documentation will become ‘manuals’ for future generations, allowing the communities (and researchers) to benefit from access to languages, gestures, and sacred rituals that had never before been documented. Staged recordings of endangered rituals provide the material to support step-by-step analysis of ritual performances, a valuable source for theological interpretation. Moreover, because many religious rituals invite the presence of sacred beings and spirits, in some communities it may be considered blasphemy or sacrilege to film the actual events (rather than an enactment). Recording endangered rituals is both valuable and urgent, particularly in the case of the groups such as Zoroastrians, where the number of practicing communities is declining rapidly (the largest population is about 70,000 people, in India, where they are called Parsis).
The Yasna ritual adheres to a precise sequence of ritual words and actions and must be carried out in a setting with access to specific facilities, such as a well with fresh water, making it increasingly challenging to conduct in the modern world. While fifty years ago Yasna was also practised by Zoroastrians in Iran, it has now been abandoned everywhere except India, where only a few priests in Mumbai and Gujarat can still perform it according to the particular conditions that it requires, and in the Avestan language, which ceased to be spoken ca. 2,000 years ago but has survived in the Zoroastrian rituals. Studying the recitations and actions which accompany the Yasna is crucial to understanding the meanings and functions of the ritual within its historical context.
Chouette Films placed a VR camera in the midst of the ritual, documenting it from within and providing unprecedented insight. Visually, the observer is transported into the centre of the ritual area. The VR camera shoots in astounding 8K (ultra-high definition), enabling the viewer to closely examine miniscule details of the performance and to watch the ritual from multiple angles at the same time, creating a unique platform for in-depth analysis. This is a significant turning point from an anthropological perspective, and it was a true privilege to be part of process.
The core rituals of the Zoroastrian religion, in particular the Yasna ceremony, are performed inside a Zoroastrian fire temple. This space is accessible only to Zoroastrians because only Zoroastrians observe the purity laws that puts a person into the state of purity required to enter a Zoroastrian fire temple. The priests who perform the ritual are in an even greater state of purity. To place a VR camera in the middle of the ritual precinct next to the ritual fire and film the performance of the ritual, provides to date visual and audio access to scenes which have been inaccessible not only to non-Zoroastrians but even also to members of the Zoroastrian community. The viewer experiences the magic of the ritual, the sound of the recitation and the actions performed by the priest in a way that has so far been only experienced by the priest themselves as they perform the ritual. Making this information available provides access to an experience that has so far been the prerogative of a small class of ritual experts. It is hoped that making the experience available to larger audiences will stimulate the interest in the rituals of the Zoroastrian religion and enhance the tradition, both in ritual practice and in the preservation, transmission and teaching of the tradition.
(Prof. Almut Hintze FBA, Zartoshty Brothers Professor of Zoroastrianism, SOAS, University of London)
Come and see the VR Yasna installation at the Brunei Gallery, London, 12 October – 15 December, 2018
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