Genius Awards 2016
Instrumental in SIFF's first-ever virtual reality programming this year.
Detained by the Nigerian state for seven days in 2007 while making Sweet Crude, a documentary about the oil-rich Niger Delta.
You will miss or misunderstand much of the brilliance in Sandy Cioffi's work as a filmmaker and educator if you fail to appreciate her intellectualism. Cioffi takes theories about economics, power relationships, and class struggle very, very seriously. Post-Fordism and neoliberalism are as real to her as stones on a table. For most people, terms like "late capitalism" lead to a blank wall in the mind: These words mean nothing at all and cannot be applied to daily life. This is not the case with Cioffi. In her mind, the words bring into distinction the manner and mode of, say, our education system: how it operates, who it privileges, who it excludes.
This is how I can describe Cioffi: a raw ball of intellectual energy. This energy can be channeled into a film project, like 2007's Sweet Crude (a documentary that got her into a whole lot of trouble in Nigeria, an oil-producing country with a ridiculously awful environmental record), or into virtual reality as a new dimension of filmmaking. Indeed, during a conversation I recently had with her about her advocacy of virtual reality, Cioffi repeatedly pointed out that she was in a race to define the theoretical language of this new art.
With Cioffi, the art is not found only in the completed film or a film-related event she helped organize, such as the groundbreaking SIFFX—SIFF's first program dedicated to virtual reality—but in her processes. You need to catch Cioffi as she is working/thinking through something. She thinks in intellectual terms, but the ideas, concepts, and theories are not for her mere castles in the sky; they are part of the air we breathe, the food we eat, the ground we walk on.
Speaking about the difference between SIFFX and more established programs, Cioffi said to me: "The traditional academy has not been at the level of dialogue about virtual reality that it should be. And I think the reason for this is that the technology is potentially disruptive... Formal institutions are not able to get behind this, and so we have to use informal ways to do what those formal institutions should be doing."
Though intellectually fearless, she is also aware that new forms of technology are not good simply because they are new. They can become either good or bad for society according to how they are used. "Is virtual reality a potential doomsday device?" she said. "People seem to have a pretty visceral reaction when they experience it. And by it, we mean X. The unknown. We are trying to solve for X, the radical unknown."
What is known is that SIFFX, which this year involved virtual reality headsets and screenings (at the Pacific Science Center Laser Dome) of the most accomplished works in this form, successfully put Seattle on the virtual reality map. The thing that many may not appreciate is that virtual reality is not out of the woods yet. The technology still has many bugs and crashes often. To run a four-day program devoted to virtual reality is a very risky and demanding operation. Most would avoid the trouble. SIFF did not. The result, SIFFX, was not glitch free, but it managed to draw a lot of local and national attention. Much of the success of this program is thanks to Cioffi.