Us. Them. Two words that feature heavily in the promotional material for Alejandro Iñárritu’s virtual reality installation project Carne y Arena. There’s a dotted border drawn between the two, as an implied ‘versus’. But who constitutes ‘us’ and who constitutes ‘them’? For the latter, given that the whole installation revolves around the experience of illegal immigrants, it’s probably pretty clear. But ‘us’? Are we the people who want to keep them out, who raise that dotted line into a wall? Are we merely the spectators in this installation, and does that perhaps symbolize our inaction in the whole matter? These are the kind of questions that Carne y Arena poses, questions that we should ask ourselves. Iñárritu has stated that everyone will experience Carne y Arena differently, which means the ‘us’ and ‘them’ will differ from person to person. Some people will have a distanced view, some will feel it in their hearts, like the heart on which these two words are written on the poster for the project. Like the beating heart you will see once you get so close to the people in these six minutes of virtual reality that you enter them. Almost stepping into their bodies, to some extent experiencing what they experienced.
Such an affecting journey requires a total immersion in the events unfolding during those six minutes. To achieve this, Iñárritu has designed the installation in such a way that it alters your mood. The staff leading you through the various stages are not downright unfriendly, but very matter-of-fact. After dropping off your valuables, you get a brief moment to read the director’s statement (more on that later) before stepping into a cold waiting room with spartan steel benches. Worn-out shoes are lying around, actual shoes found in the desert on the border between Mexico and the US. You are instructed to take off your own shoes and told to wait. Left with just your thoughts, no phone to distract you, minutes start to feel like ages. A loud buzzer sounds and you are allowed to step into the ‘arena’, there to be fitted with all the technology needed to submerge you in the belief that the sand you feel underneath your bare feet is the actual Sonoran Desert (every venue that displays Iñárritu’s installation has to send him samples of sand, so he can feel it between his toes and decide if it is the right sand – talk about an eye for detail). Soon the sun rises over mountains in the distance…
The world you find yourself in is motion captured, and once a string of immigrants and their coyotes (human traffickers) come out of the bushes it feels as if you stepped into a cut-scene from a video game. Whether that distances you from the events you are witnessing or not depends wholly on the viewer, and for me personally the amount of suspension of disbelief needed to really feel ‘in the place’ was too much. I felt reduced to little more than a curious spectator. Iñárritu has divided the short ‘story’ into three parts, with a scene of magical realism splitting a very real event: the discovery and subsequent arrest of the immigrants by US border patrol personnel. The scene unfolds with all the confusion and chaos you would expect at such a moment, and because you can literally look everywhere it’s hard to grasp just what is happening. This is obviously intentional, but it does show the stark contrast between an experience like this and the experience we have when we watch traditional cinema.
In the director’s statement Iñárritu poses virtual reality as diametrically opposed to cinema. In a theater the frame draws a border around the world it depicts, letting the camera direct your attention to where it (as an extension of the director) wants it focused. In virtual reality you direct your attention, even within a world created by the director. If you wanted to turn your back on the people lying on the ground, hands on necks and guns drawn on them, you could (would that in itself be a political statement?). Imagine turning your back on Adriana Barraza in Iñárritu’s own Babel, to pick a similar scene in a desert. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but also missing out on that scene would alter the story and your understanding and interpretation of Babel. This is what makes virtual reality such a difficult beast, and why indeed the experience is different for everybody, regardless of their own political views that they bring to the arena. If cinema is the art of visual storytelling, in virtual reality the director relinquishes his role as storyteller. In cinema, each frame and each camera position is carefully chosen to best tell the story, but if you can choose your own viewpoint in a frameless world, how does that influence the story, and does it do so for better or worse?
Carne y Arena is too short to experiment with this idea, because it lacks a story in a traditional cinematic sense. You are thrust into a scene without any way to identify with its characters (not least because their facial features are intentionally blurry), whereas in regular film you would grow familiar and get attached to them. The story of the characters in the scene actually is told after the virtual reality, when you enter the last part of the installation. In a long gallery a dozen or so portraits of real immigrants whose tales inspired Iñárritu’s project line one side, the other side formed by an actual piece of border fence. Over their filmed faces the stories of their origin, their hardships along the road, and their current status are projected. Here the hitherto faceless characters in the virtual world get a face in the real one. The anonymous ‘immigrants’ get names, and their experiences are genuinely affecting. Most of these stories have a ‘happy’ ending, as they all have better lives than the ones they left behind. As such, it almost feels like conventional cinema again. But if Carne y Arena proves anything, it’s that virtual reality is not the next step in the evolution of cinema, but its own thing.