Alejandro G. Inarritu and Emmanuel Lubezki are making a splash in the world of virtual reality with their VR installation “Arena y Carne (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible)” but the Oscar-winning director and cinematographer are also playing hard to get at the Cannes Film Festival. Although the work is part of the official selection, the first VR experience to make that prestigious cut, it is playing not in the Palais or elsewhere along the Croisette, but in a warehouse space 15 minutes west of town, near the small Aeroport Cannes Mandelieu.
But you can’t just show up with your badge and walk in — you have to sign up in advance for a specific time slot, which is when you’ll be driven to the location in a festival car. And you can’t sign up unless you’ve been invited, with invitations mostly going to members of the press. And even if you have been invited, all the available time slots — two people every half hour through the end of the festival on May 28 — are filled.
The work itself lasts about six and a half minutes, but it’s about a 90-minute commitment. Oh, and when you get there you have to surrender your phone and your ID, take off your shoes and socks and sign a waiver absolving the festival of responsibility if you’re injured or you die. This is surely the only Cannes Film Festival event ever to make that requirement.
“Carne y Arena” is not physically dangerous – viewers are free to move around a large open space while the action is unfolding, but only one person at a time undergoes the experience, surrounded by unseen aides who keep cords from being tangled and prevent visitors from walking into walls.
And yes, those things could happen — because when you put on the VR headset and headphones, you find yourself in the desert along the U.S./Mexico border just before dawn. (The floor of the space is sand, the one non-virtual effect.) You are soon surrounded by a group of migrants who are attempting to cross the border, and quickly you’re all under the harsh spotlight of a border patrol helicopter and in the sights of a bevy of gun-toting agents.
The purpose of the installation, said Inarritu in a statement introducing it, is to “experiment with VR technology in order to explore the human condition while finding a personal way to represent it.” The people around you in the virtual desert are not actors playing roles — they’re men and women who really made the dangerous border crossing and are recreating their real experiences, sometimes in the clothes they actually wore when they made the trip.
As a viewer, you are free to interact in whatever way you want — you can wander from one migrant to another, and when the agents scream at you to get on your knees, you can drop to the sand along with the migrants, or walk over to the agents to see the confrontation from their perspective.
It is an immersive experience but, more than that, it is designed to be an emotional one. “By adapting the events experienced by one or many of the immigrants during their journeys across the border and adding specific details described by them, I wrote and staged a scene creating a multi-narrative space that incorporates many of them in what could be called a semi-fictionalized ethnography,” wrote Inarritu. He expanded the experience by piling real shoes from those who died making the crossing in the waiting room, and adding stark and compelling video testimonies from the people he interviewed on the way out.
“Carne y Arena” is disturbing and enlightening, to be sure, personalizing the immigrant experience in a way that none of the other Cannes works about refugees and immigration can do. (So far, that list includes the Vanessa Redgrave documentary “Sea Sorrow” and Kornel Mundruczo’s competition title “Jupiter’s Moon.”)
As for the level of realism that Inarritu and Lubezki are able to achieve, this VR neophyte will only say that while the experience is undeniably powerful, the viewer is still at a distance. You can observe the action from any angle, but you can’t change what happens, and while the pre-dawn darkness helps with realism, what you see comes through a slight haze and feels more like a dream than reality.
Or, rather, it feels like a nightmare, which in many ways is the point. “Carne y Arena” uses technology not to show off, but to make us feel and understand, which is an altogether worthier goal.
Obviously, this isn’t the kind of experience that can be marketed for a wide audience — but when Cannes concludes, “Carne y Arena” will become a little more accessible to the general public. In an expanded version, it will be presented at the Fondazione Prada in Milan from June 7 through Jan. 28, and subsequently at other museums around the world.