Joe Hunting was incredibly generous and let me squeeze in an interview with him during the Press Breakfast at Sundance London Film Festival. As you’ll see, I found this documentary incredibly valuable. In Joe’s debut feature, we are immersed in the world of VR as we meet various people in the community, learning how online relationships can be just as, if not more, meaningful as in real life.

Carrie: I just want to say, I love the film so much. The more I thought about it, the more I appreciated it. It became a tribute to online-based friendships and relationships, in an industry that usually depicts the internet as this evil monster. How were people responding to your pitch of filming an entire documentary, using this newfound technology [with] a seemingly ‘niche’ group of people? 

Joe: Firstly, I’m so pleased that you enjoyed the film. Thank you for saying that. I never pitched, so to speak, We Met in Virtual Reality. I just went ahead and made it. Because I wasn’t sure how people would react to it. A passion project that was just burning inside me that I created entirely independently. But I can say I pitched one of my short documentaries, which again was filmed entirely inside of VR, to my film tutors as part of my university programme. They were shocked and they told me ‘it was a mistake’ and they said, ‘I don’t think that’s going to work’. But I went ahead and made it anyway. That set me on my path to make the feature that is now showing [at Sundance London]. I’m very glad that it was [rejected] because I don’t think I’d be where I am now without that.

Carrie: You just did the whole thing and then asked questions later!

Joe: Yeah, exactly!

Carrie: So were you an avid VR user prior to making this documentary?

Joe: Oh yes, absolutely. I came into VR in 2018, so I had already had a good two years of experience making films and being a participant and hanging out, meeting different people in the space before going into the production for the feature film.

Carrie: How was it building the relationship with potential interviewees? Did you already know them before going into it? Or was it ‘Okay I’m going to make this documentary and meet them along the way’?

Joe: I knew some of them. I first met Jenny, the sign language teacher we meet in the film, in the summer of 2020. We were working on another project and I knew that her story about sign language and teaching and education was just so influential and so truthful in many ways. So, immediately I started speaking with Jenny, for the documentary. From there I explored different communities and I met DustBunny and Toaster, IsYourBoi and Dragonheart, and the other subjects in the film very naturally just through exploring and going to different events. 

Carrie: And did you have a set idea in mind of what you wanted it to communicate within the documentary or did it naturally? 

Joe: I think the messages came from a mix of both. I knew that I wanted to discuss gender and sexuality in the documentary and different forms of embodiment and how virtual reality can affect the way we see ourselves and see others. Just generally the emotional experience of the platform. But also [how it] represents minority groups, especially the deaf and hard of hearing community, and show that they have a voice not only in real life, documentaries and fiction and cinema but in virtual reality and how their voices are really pushing the platform forward. I really wanted to represent the existing world of VR very much like the beginning of the internet, it was pushed forward by the LGBT community and minority groups. And that’s the same with VR. 

Carrie: And what was it that you discovered about the film along the way? What was it that you uncovered whilst making the documentary?

Joe: Oh, good question… I knew the communities existed when I was making the documentary, but the production of the film itself and using a virtual camera for the first time, actually with my hands and changing lenses and zooming in and shooting a cinematic film… The reflection I have about the making of the film is just a sense of presence in VR. When I go into VR now, it feels so real and so tangible, like it never did before. And that comes with spending so much time in this space. That was my biggest realization after completing the film, just how real it felt and just how real my connections are with the subjects as well.

Carrie: Yeah, and what was your subject selection like? So did you naturally meet IsYourBoi and DragonHeart and be like, ‘I want to interview those’? Or did you already have a fixed state of mind going in?

Joe: I’ve spoken with loads of different people for the documentary. And when I had conversations with IsYourBoi and Dragonheart, DustBunny and Toaster, and Jenny, I knew immediately that they were the voices of the film. They just spoke with such strength, for their stories and with such humility and truth, that it was a very immediate moment. As soon as I discovered that I just worked with them and spoke with them, but the film would not exist without all of the other people I spoke to. It was a matter of just being patient with myself and being patient with the community and speaking to people and slowly deciding the voices that would suit their films. So I had to let a lot of people down, but because the documentary is the first of its kind and everyone just wants to push the community and show it in a film, everyone’s very supportive.

Carrie: Yeah I have a feeling more stories like this will be told, and it’s really wonderful seeing your debut feature showcase that community. Are stories about internet relationships the main focus for future works? Or is there something else on the horizon? 

Joe: I am always going to be interested in relationships in VR and online especially. That will eternally fascinate me. But, if I’m to be truthful, I am in development [of] a new project, but it’s much more of a fiction. Inspired by real stories from VR chats and virtual reality. So it’s a little bit more out there. It’s not just about relationships. It’s about a lot of different ways that we can express and engage with technology, but written in a fiction format.

Carrie: Amazing. Well, thank you so much, Joe, and I hope you have a great rest of the press tour. 

Joe: Thank you very much.

We Met in Virtual Reality is premiering at multiple film festivals this year, currently at the Sydney Film Festival 2022.

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