Carne y Arena, a Spanish term which literally means flesh and sand though it is titled ‘Virtually Present, Physically Invisible’ in English, is the officially selected VR experience at the Cannes Film Festival 2017. According to the critics, it is definitely far more interesting, far more alive to the creative and responsive possibilities of the medium, than the rather unassertive VR experience from last year’s Venice Film Festival: a dainty, Sunday-school retelling of the life of Jesus.
This virtual reality installation tells the story of immigrants trying to cross the Mexican border into the United States. The six-and-a-half minute experience has the viewers first enter a holding cell reminiscent of the ones currently being used by border guards. Participants are only allowed to experience it alone, so that feeling of isolation seems to be there right from the get-go. You take your shoes and socks off in a side room with other people’s boots and shoes littered about and walk through into an airport hangar, 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. In the space of six and a half minutes, many immigrant stories are imparted through the characters, who are based on real people interviewed by Iñárritu. And the viewer becomes a part of their perilous crossing.
Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki’s project promises the birth of an entirely new medium. And when asked about, when did they start thinking of a VR project, Iñárritu said, “I got the idea to do this five years ago. I wanted that immersion. I wanted there to be free movement and I wanted you to feel the sand under your feet. But at the time the technology was not ready at all. It still was not, when we embarked on this thing a year ago, but we started pushing it until we arrived at where we arrived with what is available now. But I think it’s enough, to reveal another way to experience things. To not just subserve cinema.”
Many thought earlier that it could be a fetishisation of the refugees’ suffering – sponsored as it is by Prada. But to the contrary, it does tell you one real thing: what it feels like to have a gun pointed at you. You become lowered, lessened – you become 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. As for whether it really tests the boundaries of cinema – that’s unproven. Carne y Arena offers the new and experimental thinking. And to say the least, innovation is always welcome and necessary.