Equipped with a VR headset, a viewer of "Carne y Arena" experiences the film inside a cavernous room full of sand.
Equipped with a VR headset, a viewer of "Carne y Arena" experiences the film inside a cavernous room full of sand. Emmaneul Lubezki

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new VR film recreates the experience of crossing the U.S. border.

There’s a scene in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena that is meant to stop your heart. Several scenes, really: The project is a recreation of a showdown at the U.S. border, and it turns terrifying in flash. But the piece—part virtual-reality experiment, part immersive-spectacle video art installation—begins with a sequence that is meant to test your patience.

When visitors arrive at the former church in northeast Washington, D.C., where Carne y Arena (or “Flesh and Sand”) is being staged this summer, they are ushered into a holding cell. The space is cold and sterile, a gray pen with cement floors and a metal bench. Participants are instructed to take off their shoes and socks and put them (and any bags) into a pair of metal lockers. Instructions are piped into the room through an overhead speaker. Then the wait begins: a simulation of the detention that unauthorized immigrants and refugees experience upon their arrival to the border.

The processing for Carne y Arena lasts only a few minutes, but it’s long enough to wear thin. For the migrants who survive the deadly trek through Mexico, the real detention can run on for days, even weeks. In the installation, the anteroom works to slow viewers down, to detach them from their thoughts and phones, to disorient them. What follows—a virtual-reality film of a dangerous but commonplace encounter between a caravan of refugees and the U.S. Border Patrol—is also brief. Its six-and-a-half minute runtime goes by in an instant.

Iñárritu, the Oscar-winning director of Birdman, The Revenant, and Amores Perros, said in a talk at the Phillips Collection this week that Carne y Arena was inspired by his interviews with dozens of immigrants from across Latin America who survived the border. “There’s a part of journalism here,” said the filmmaker, who’s from Mexico. “And there’s a documentary part. It’s a reenactment of their lives. It’s a slice of their nightmare, let’s put it that way.”

A former church off Benning Road in Northeast D.C. is the unlikely site of a breakthrough in virtual reality. (Agatha Bacelar/Emerson Collective)

Carne y Arena belongs to the same category of gallery-quality, conceptual installations as the Rain Room or the Museum of Ice Cream—but it’s a world apart from either. It’s an anti-spectacle: The piece can’t be shared on Instagram, even though it is more immersive, and more substantive, than anything else in its class.

The piece proceeds in three parts. After viewers leave the detention room, they enter a dark, vast space filled with sand. There, they put on a headset with headphones (plus a backpack unit) that thrusts them into the Chihuahuan Desert, where they encounter a caravan of migrants being led by a coyote to the border, just before they are apprehended by U.S. authorities. It’s night; a helicopter hovers in the distance. What a viewer sees or hears of the caravan depends on where she stands in the desert, with them or apart from them. When border patrol vehicles descend suddenly on the migrants, the experience of the scene that unfolds depends also on where the viewer situates herself: among the refugees or among the officers.

The third segment of Carne y Arena (which follows in the room after the VR space) reflects the accounts of migrants and refugees who fled El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. Portraits of these people—the real-life actors in his film—are accompanied by texts that tell their individual stories. Among them: a boy who fled MS-13 in El Salvador at age 15 only to be robbed in Mexico and locked in a freezing detention center in the U.S. for 10 days, and a U.S. Border Patrol agent who recounts the nightmares he has about finding people dying of heat exhaustion in the desert.

Carne y Arena opened in the spring, and its producers have been rolling out (free) timed passes every two weeks; the project will run to October, and possibly beyond. (Disclosure: The Emerson Collective, the majority owner of The Atlantic and CityLab, brought the piece to D.C. after its debut at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year.) In recent weeks, though, the context of the work has deepened. A report in The New York Times that federal agencies had lost track of some 1,500 minors who arrived at the border unaccompanied by an adult—along with the Trump administration’s new policy of separating migrant children from their families at the border—have collided in a perfect storm of chaos and fear.

“When I started Carne y Arena, this administration was not in power,” the director said during his talk. “Things have changed very rapidly. Things have become more urgent. But it still was something that I have here in my bones and my soul.”

Alejandro González Iñárritu reenacts a border scene in the desert. (Chachi Ramirez/Legendary)

At the Phillips Collection, Iñárritu talked about building the piece. He first got the idea back in 2006, when he was making Babel, a drama that follows different border narratives around the world. For that film, Iñárritu interviewed more than 100 immigrants hailing from every Latin American country. It would take a while, though, for the technology to advance to the point that he could realize a film that immersed viewers in the border-crossing experience.  

“When I was exposed to virtual reality six or seven years ago, it looked like shit. But the idea of it was what I wanted,” Iñárritu said. “When I finished The Revenant, I decided I should explore it again. It still looked like shit, but it was better.”

Maybe the nighttime setting and other cinematic tricks disguise some of the limitations of the still-developing VR technology, as the director pleads. That’s hard to tell, though, when you’re walking barefoot through actual sand, in what feels like a true desert at twilight—a scene so convincing that I felt compelled to navigate around mesquite bushes that were not there. Shouting officers, barking dogs, helicopter rotors, and cries of anxiety all sound very convincing indeed.

Then there’s a point when the officers turn their guns on the viewer and begin shouting orders at the migrants, and anything goes. It is not a scene for the faint of heart or easily traumatized. I felt pushed to run but instead froze in place, aware that I was not following their orders to get down on the ground. Further down the brain stem, more dimly, and maybe only after the fact, it occurred to me that these weren’t real orders, or real officers.

Only after that tense scene melts—giving way to a dreamlike vision of a table, over which tiny figures row in a crowded boat—will it occur to some viewers that they are free to walk around the cavernous space to take in the scene from different vantage points. It’s not one film but many films, a limitless variety. Those who decide to test the medium, by walking directly into the space occupied by an officer or migrant, are treated to another surreal effect.

But that wasn’t me. I was always mindful that I was on a stage, watching a drama play out, until that drama turned on me. The symbolic value of Border Patrol agents turning their flashlight beams on the viewer won’t be lost on anyone, even if they see it coming. It’s less clear how to interpret a final scene of empty desert, with only a few bits of detritus left behind to mark the passage of the migrants. Did they make it? A pair of abandoned white shoes is a worrying sign. Here the film itself shines, capturing the serenity and loneliness of the vast desert. It feels shameful to admit, but this coda brings a sense of relief.

Iñárritu said that he hopes that Republican lawmakers see the piece while it’s up. (A few Democratic leaders, among them Senator Cory Booker, have been in the audience so far.) But he doesn’t mean to prescribe any specific political agenda.

“I’m not attached to any land,” Iñárritu said. “I’m attached to humans.”

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