Cannes: Alejandro G. Inarritu Goes to the Heart of the Refugee Crisis With VR Installation

Carne y Arena
Emmanuel Lubezki

The Oscar-winning director's six-and-a-half minute project, 'Carne y Arena,' made with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, is the first virtual reality film to screen at the Cannes festival.

Thanks to Alejandro G. Inarritu, the film world may start taking virtual reality seriously as a form of art.

Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible), a VR installation set up for the 10 days of the Cannes Film Festival, takes viewers literally to the heart of the refugee crisis by putting them in the shoes, and under the skin, of immigrants trying to cross the Mexican border into the U.S.

Housed in an empty airport hanger in Mandelieu, a short drive outside of Cannes, the installation recreates the refugee experience. Individual viewers — Carne y Arena can only be experienced solo — first step into a holding cell, a so-called “freezer” that mimics those used by border guards, and remove their shoes and socks. When an alarm sounds, you move into the next room, a vast dark space with sand spread across the floor. A technician and two spotters fit you with a backpack, VR headset and headphones and you can wander around freely.

When the film begins, you are suddenly in a desert somewhere on the Mexican border. The hyper-realistic visuals — shot by regular Inarritu collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki — are technically astounding. But the real surprise is the film's emotional impact when, a few seconds in, a group of migrants stumble towards you — men, women and children, one boy no more than 10, trying to cross the border and escape to a better life. Each is a real person, whose stories Inarritu collected over the past four years for the installation.

When, out of the dark, border guards arrive, blinding you with their cars' headlights and a man points an assault rifle right at you, the gap between viewer and subject dissolves. This reporter had to resist the urge to drop to his knees or to run away. You hear snatches of their stories — one, who tells the officers he is an attorney, speaks good English — as the group is rounded up and arrested.

Moving directly into a person — border guard or migrant — and you see the real surprise of Carne y Arena: inside their skin you see their beating heart. Whether officer, old woman and child, each one the same. The core of Inarritu's message, about the common humanity that unites us, becomes clear. Powerful and moving without being gimmicky, the film forces the viewer to empathize directly with the migrants lived experience.

The video lasts six-and-a-half minutes. Afterwards, you move into a corridor full of video portraits of the real immigrants, and one of the border guards, who tell their own stories of the border crossing.

Carne y Arena was created together with producer Mary Parent and Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB. And financed by Legendary Entertainment and Fondazione Prada.

Fewer than 100 people per day will be able to experience the work over the 10 days of the festival, after which Carne y Arena will move to Milan’s Fondazione Prada, where it will run from June through December.