Oscar winner Alejandro G. Inarritu's virtual reality installation Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible) has been voted a Special Award — an Oscar statuette — "in recognition of a visionary and powerful experience in storytelling," the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced Friday.
It has been 22 years since the Academy last presented a Special Award when it presented one to John Lasseter for creating the first feature-length computer-animated film in Toy Story. Only 18 such honors have been presented in the Academy's 90-year history.
Carne y Arena, which debuted in May at the Cannes Film Festival, combines virtual reality, physical artifacts and video testimony to create the experience of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Participants are first confronted with a piece of the actual border wall itself. They then enter an antechamber, where shoes and other discarded belongings of those who've crossed the border are on display. After removing their own shoes, each individual participant then enters a large soundstage, covered in sand, where he or she dons a virtual reality headset.
A six-and-a-half minute, 360-degree experience then takes place: First a small line of migrants, led by coyotes, approach from the distance, struggling to make their way across the desert. A helicopter overhead trains its spotlight on them. Border guards, with barking dogs, drive up and force the terrified migrants to their knees before taking them away and silence then descends once again on the desert setting.
Finally, participants exist through another corridor, lined with video portraits of actual immigrants as a text scroll tells their individual stories: why they sought a better life in America, what they endured during the crossing and what has become of them since.
Carne y Arena — which is on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Fondazione Prada in Milan and Tlatelolco Cultural Center in Mexico City — is a collaboration between Inarritu, his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, producer Mary Parent, Legendary Entertainment, Fondazione Prada, ILMxLAB and Emerson Collective. Katie Calhoon executive produced.
The award will be presented at the Academy's 9th Governors Awards ceremony on Saturday, Nov. 11, where writer/director Charles Burnett, cinematographer Owen Roizman, actor Donald Sutherland and director/documentarian Agnes Varda will collect previously announced honorary Oscars.
"The Governors of the Academy are proud to present a special Oscar to Carne y Arena, in which Alejandro Inarritu and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have opened for us new doors of cinematic perception," Academy president John Bailey said in a statement. "Carne y Arena, Inarritu's multimedia art and cinema experience, is a deeply emotional and physically immersive venture into the world of migrants crossing the desert of the American Southwest in early dawn light. More than even a creative breakthrough in the still-emerging form of virtual reality, it viscerally connects us to the hot-button political and social realities of the U.S.-Mexico border."
Presumably, Bailey, who was elected Academy president in August and is a distinguished cinematographer himself, played an integral role in delivering this unexpected honor to Carne y Arena and its makers.