Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest project is an innovative and immersive account of the horrors faced at the Mexico-US border. The Oscar-winning director, has created “Carne y Arena” (“Flesh and Sand”; subtitled “virtually present, physically invisible”), which recreates the trials of migrants trying to cross the Mexican border into America. After a premiere at the Cannes festival, “Carne y Arena” will exhibit in Milan, Los Angeles and Mexico City, and other cities are planned, too. Walking through sand—to mimic the Arizona desert—the viewer is surrounded by injured, dehydrated immigrants. Before long, helicopters point spotlights and border agents emerge, wielding machine guns. When they bark orders to “get down”, most viewers instinctively fall to the floor. Back in 1903, audiences reacted similarly to the outrageous final shot of Edwin S. Porter’s eight-minute film “The Great Train Robbery.” The leader of the film’s outlaw gang, Bronco Billy Anderson, points a gun right at the camera — at the audience — and shoots. People thought a gun was actually being fired at them, and so they scrambled to get out of the way instinctively.
Although VR is a powerful medium—the ultimate empathy tool—for giving 360° depictions of other people’s experiences, its use has mostly been confined and linked to commercial tethered headsets released for VR gaming or theme parks. Drones immediately made their way into film-making, whereas virtual reality was forced aside since 3D film productions became the norm. Now, Iñárritu’s attempt not only presents an innovative application of VR installation, but also makes a political statement based on first-hand interviews and research, having as a subject immigrants and refugees who have come up through Central America and Mexico, attempting to enter the United States.
The experience plunges you into the disorientating and even terrifying situation. You walk into what is effectively an aircraft hangar shed: the installation has been set up at Cannes-Mandelieu airport, twenty minutes’ drive out from the center. You take your shoes and socks off in a side room with other people’s boots and shoes littered about, and walk through into a space the size of a tennis court, covered in sand. The VR goggles go on, and you find yourself in a vast, baking scrubland on the US-Mexico border, as scared and hungry refugees trudge up to you over the horizon. Then a helicopter and two SUVs from border patrol show up full of cops with guns who aggressively arrest everyone, all around you.
Night falls and there is a hallucinatory sequence showing refugees being tipped out of a boat. Then things become scarier still. Just when you had become used to wandering up to imaginary cops with their very real-looking semi-automatics, and nervously accustomed yourself to the fact that all their movements are choreographed and that you are to them effectively a ghost, invisible – you realize that the software of this exhibition has tracked your position and eyeline. Albeit virtual, the film does tell you one real thing: what it feels like to have a gun pointed at you, to be subhuman, without even a criminal’s civilian rights. And anyone experiencing this installation can see that this offers only a fraction of what is happening in real life.
So, that’s a great case. It demonstrates that Virtual Reality is capable to broaden our horizons and help us address and be aware about the world’s most important problems – what a misuse it will be if it is restricted just to simulate consumption and isolate some more gamers from the real world…