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Inarritu’s VR Hit ‘Carne y Arena’ Storms DC

Film director Alejandro G. Inarritu (“The Revenant”, “Birdman”, “Babel”, “Amores Perros”) has created one of virtual reality’s first masterworks,”Carne y Arena” (translates as “Flesh and Sand”), and it’s now playing in Washington, DC, through the summer. While Tickets are free for this mixed reality installation, which resides in a converted church in Northeast, about a mile from the capitol, reservations are required. The church, slated for demolition, was extensively refurbished for this exhibition. Walls are made from discarded steel that once comprised the fence on the US Mexico border. “Carne y Arena” only accommodates 46 visitors a day. The exhibition, which opened its doors on March 26th, will run through August. Tickets to its first six weeks instantly sold out. A second block will be made available on Monday, April 16th.

Alejandro Inarritu’s extraordinary virtual reality experience is playing in Washington, DC, through August 2018.

Innaritu’s experience won a special Oscar, the first for virtual reality, in 2017. Subsequently, it’s played sold-out exhibitions in Milan, Mexico City and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The groundbreaking work is presented by the Emerson Collective, in association with Fondazione Prada and LACMA. It explores the human condition of refugees and immigrants. The Emerson Collective was founded and is run by Laurene Powell Jobs.

The experience itself consists of three rooms. You walk into a cold, very cold, concrete room with narrow steel benches lining the walls where you are instructed to remove your shoes and socks and place them in a locker. I noticed that under the narrow benches there were stacks of worn shoes of varying types and sizes. I’m shivering. After an uncomfortable amount of time a light goes off and I walk into a large room. Barefoot, I walk gingerly across the rocky sand floor to meet the attendants and don VR gear. Then it begins.

A user in the experience.

You find yourself surrounded by migrants in transit. There’s a pregnant woman with a child. Several working-age men. Someone is complaining of a broken ankle. The guide, or Coyote, is on his cell phone. Suddenly, a helicopter with a searing spotlight bears down on us. The border patrol arrives, pointing AR 15’s, and orders the group onto their knees. They seem as terrified as the migrants. As an invisible ghost, a mere witness to this terrifying dramatic scene, I am able to literally walk inside the characters and see their beating hearts. A fantasy sequence begins.

The characters are in repose. The officers’ lounge about. One smokes. Another lies on his back, contemplating the stars. The older woman with a broken ankle hums at a long table upon which a boat floats and then capsizes, spilling its human cargo. And then we are snapped back to the live action scene. The officers command the migrants take off their shoes. Men are interrogated, handcuffed, and frisked. One says he is a lawyer who was unjustly deported from his California home. The helo continues to ride shotgun in the sky above us and suddenly, just like that, it’s over.

Inarritu in the studio with one of the migrants who plays himself.

I’m then ushered into a third room, where I see photos of the people I just saw in the simulation. I get my shoes back and am able to hear them tell their heartbreaking stories in their own words. Listening to the tragic stories of migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico is difficult. If you’re human, tears will well up. It is hard to imagine the hardships they endured to work in menial jobs and send money to their families.

“During the past five years in which this project has been growing in my mind, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing many Mexican and Central American refugees,” Iñárritu said. “Their life stories haunted me, so I invited some of them to collaborate with me on the project. My intention was to experiment with VR technology to explore the human condition in an attempt to break the dictatorship of the frame — within which things are just observed — and claim the space to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts.”

Live on location.

After a five-year process of developing its elevated content and technology through ILMxLAB, CARNE y ARENA premiered in May of last year at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, as its first virtual reality project to be included in the Official Selection, before traveling to Fondazione Prada in Milan, the Tlatelolco University Cultural Center in Mexico City and LACMA.

Manuel, a 17-year-old migrant from Guatemala described his journey to America:

I traveled for 2 days in the back of a truck under heavy logs. I lost the feeling in my foot. I didn’t eat or drink for days and lost my strength to walk. The coyotes threw me on the train known as “The Beast.”

We rode for 4 days with hundreds of people without air or food. The cholos assaulted us and took away everything we brought. When we arrived, we were locked up for 15 days in a warehouse while waiting for an opportunity to cross.

Inarritu’s VE masterpiece is free, though reservations are required.

For 3 days and 3 nights, we crossed the desert. The cold almost killed me. My feet were filled with sores. A thorn was buried in my foot. I could not walk. The coyote threatened me with his gun. I walked or he killed me, he said. I tied my shirt to my feet and walked.

One night, a helicopter and 3 patrol cars caught us. They took my backpack with my food and tied our hands behind our backs. They took us to the holding cells known as “the freezers” because of how cold they kept them.” Hearing this throws the experience into context. And your heart goes out to him, and this uniquely American story.

This post was originally featured on on April 14, 2018

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