Alejandro G. Inarritu Embraces Virtual Reality (But Don't Call It Cinema)

Steve Granitz/WireImage/Getty Images (Inarritu); Courtesy of Cannes (Carne)
A viewer experiences Carne y Arena (Inset: Alejandro G. Inarritu)

"Cinema is frame, cinema is length of the lens, cinema is editing, the position of images that create time and space," explains the filmmaker, whose six-and-a-half-minute project was the first virtual reality installation to screen at the fest.

The inclusion of two movies produced by Netflix turned this year's Cannes Film Festival competition into something of a referendum on what is cinema and what isn't. Ironic then that one of the most popular screenings at the fest was a six-and-a-half-minute virtual reality "experience" shown out of competition.

Created by Oscar-winning director Alejandro G. Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible), the first VR film to screen at Cannes, re-creates the experience of immigrants crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. Viewers wander barefoot through a vast, dark space covered in sand and equipped with a backpack, VR headset and headphones, while virtual border guards swoop down to arrest them.

It is a powerful way to convey the migrant story, but Inarritu tells THR he doesn't consider Carne y Arena to be cinema. "Cinema is frame, cinema is length of the lens, cinema is editing, the position of images that create time and space," he says. "Virtual reality, even when it's visual, is exactly all what cinema is not."

Also not cinema, says Inarritu: watching Netflix on a phone. The director compares seeing a movie on the big screen with viewing on a cellphone to standing in front of a masterpiece by Spanish painter Diego Velázquez and seeing the same painting on a postcard. “If you see the postcard, you haven't seen the Velazquez,” he says. But the director of Birdman and The Revenant defends the streamer against theater owners who want to ban its films from Cannes: "Ninety percent of the films we see here, none of them will arrive to screens in any part of the world. The reality is, it's better these films stay on Netflix because they can be seen."

Initially, only a select few will be able to see Carne y Arena as well. No more than 100 people per day will be able to visit the VR installation during Cannes (every viewer has to experience the project solo), before the project moves to Milan’s Fondazione Prada where it will run from June through December. But those few are unlikely to quickly forget. Aside from the astounding technical achievement — the hyper-realistic visuals and astounding sound design create a sense of verisimilitude that is almost eerie — the real strength of Carne y Arena is its emotional impact. 

Inarritu tells THR he first came up with the idea for the project five years ago, when he met with migrants and began to hear their stories of escape and survival.

"I thought it to be amazing to have people really experience what these migrants went through, to being in the night and really feel what this guy was telling me, which is terrifying. But if I would make a short film, you will not be inside it, you wouldn't see it. It would go on YouTube or wherever, it would be part of all the other films on this subject."

In Cannes alone there are several documentaries and dramas examining the refugee crisis, including Vanessa Redgrave's documentary Sea Sorrow, a heartfelt, straightforward plea for empathy; Michael Haneke's Happy End, a family drama starring Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant set against the backdrop of the “Calais Jungle,” the encampment where thousands of migrants gathered before trying to cross the English Channel to the U.K.; and Jupiter's Moon, the competition title from Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo in which a Syrian refugee, trying to flee to Europe, is shot and suddenly develops supernatural powers.

"In a way we have arrived to a moment where we are desensitized with reality," says Inarritu, "with all the numbers, all the images [of the crisis]. In a way, there is not enough reality, so we have to create the virtual reality of a very bad reality to make it relevant. I think it was the best way to make people experience what it is to be a migrant. Not understand, not rationalize, but feel — to live, to be one of them. And VR is a beautiful medium to use that for."

The technology to create Carne y Arena didn't even exist when Inarritu and Lubezki started developing the project, gathering stories and blocking out the scenes that would become the VR experience. Although the entire project was created inside a computer, Lubezki admits the pair did initially fall back on old filmmaking techniques, taking a camera to the desert to shoot versions of the story "to help us understand time of day and the feeling we wanted to create. That was always our reference of how we wanted this to feel when we built it in the computer."

The migrants in Carne y Arena, and the border guards, all play themselves, telling their own stories how they remember them. The "actors' " performances were recorded via motion capture. 

"It is part theater, part documentary and part fiction, and that’s the beauty of it," says Inarritu. "It’s like the whole arts combined in one in the most extreme ways. Shifting and blending. It’s an orgy of everything to give the maximum expression. And it’s very challenging because I’m not giving you the classic frame, with two guys talking or whatever, and cutting frame by frame. We have to create every particle, every cell, whatever you want to work has to make sense. It has to be in sync; it has to have rhythm."

"There was no guidebook," adds Lubezki. "We could not learn from our previous filmmaker friends; we had to find it ourselves. But something that Alejandro is not telling is that a lot of thought went into how to manipulate you, so you see what he wants you to see and feel and to go through what he wants you too. You feel completely free, that you are by yourself and can go anywhere you want. But there are a few key things we designed, very specifically, for you to follow us."

Whatever else can be said about Carne y Arena, the project should put to rest the argument that virtual reality is a gimmick, not an art form. But Inarritu cautions filmmakers to not take on the new medium unless they "have something to offer" VR.

"That’s the big question, because I think VR really is much more radical than cinema. You really need to have something to offer to justify the use of the medium. And I would ask myself what VR demands from me as a director. It demands much more than cinema — the cinema in a way is a much more benign, more passive. There is nothing passive about VR."

That, in the end, is the strength of Carne y Arena. By forcing the viewer to take an active role, to physically experience the life of a migrant, Inarritu goes beyond documentary or fiction polemics.

"I think people will understand much more if they experience it, what it is to be a migrant, not rationally, but here, on your skin. This issue has been used politically, for this purpose or that, but this is bigger than that. It’s a human existential crisis.”

A version of this story first appeared in the May 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.