To experience ‘Carne y Arena,’ you’ll walk barefoot in a sand-covered room, while wearing a virtual reality headset and backpack. (Emmanuel Lubezki)
A woman loaded down with shopping bags pauses in front of an unfamiliar building on Benning Road NE. “This used to be a church,” she says, before surmising that the building, which sports a stylishly recycled facade of boards and corrugated metal, must be a restaurant now.
It’s not a bad guess. For one thing, the sign on the building says “Carne y Arena” — a phrase that loosely translates to “Flesh and Sand” but bears a passing resemblance to “carne asada,” or grilled steak. Plus, a new restaurant on the growing H Street corridor is more likely than what “Carne y Arena” actually is — a virtual reality “film” by Oscar-winning Mexican director Alejandro G. Inarritu (“The Revenant”) that immerses viewers in a nightmare familiar to the millions of people who have tried illegally crossing the border from Mexico into the United States.
In D.C., the experience takes place in a former church on Benning Road NE. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
D.C. isn’t the first city to host “Carne y Arena,” but it is the first place where tickets are totally free, says Kristin Guiter, the installation’s local spokesperson. (Batches of tickets are released online every two weeks.) Before its arrival in D.C., Inarritu’s film won a special Oscar — the first for virtual reality — and played sold-out exhibitions in Milan, Mexico City and Los Angeles.
Since opening in D.C. in March, the installation has drawn a steady stream of politicians, immigration activists and ordinary folks, Guiter says. Everyone reacts differently, especially at the point where border guards seemingly point guns right at you, she says.
“Some people flat-out hit the ground,” she says. “Other people sort of stand back and watch.”
In the post-experience gathering area, Arlington resident Jessica Hoover, 33, points to scuff marks on her pants. When the border guards told her to get down, she did exactly that.
“I was scared,” she says. “It’s intense. You know, you hear about people crossing the border and trying to come to America to make a better life, but until you actually see it and feel it and feel the sand underneath your feet, you don’t realize what some of these people go through.”
Inarritu and his collaborators designed the experience, which visitors go through one at a time, to be hyper-realistic. Before putting on the virtual reality headset, you sit in a cold, featureless room surrounded by objects actually left behind in the desert: toddlers’ Crocs, improvised canteens, slippers made of rag and twine. At this step, you put your shoes and other belongings in a locker, and then sit on a bench and wait. And wait a little longer.
The makers of “Carne y Arena” digitally re-created real-life migrants, such as Selena from Guatemala, to appear in the virtual reality experience.
This part of the experience mimics the holding cells colloquially known as las hieleras, or “the freezers,” where U.S. Border Patrol agents detain captured migrants for two days on average as they await their fates — an ordeal that’s even worse than the harrowing border crossing, some say.
Without warning, an alarm blares, red lights flash and you’re off to the next room, where you step onto coarse sand and don a backpack, headphones and Oculus Rift goggles.
As you peer into the VR goggles, you see nothing at first, and then you’re in a desert at dawn, surrounded by fellow migrants, bent and dusty. Suddenly, you’re surrounded by armed men and dogs, and you must decide what to do, where to look.
The virtual reality portion of the experience lasts only 6½ minutes, but it feels much longer, says Luis Morales, 43, also visiting from Arlington.
“I’d like to say it was cool, but it’s actually kind of sad and depressing,” he says.
Morales was especially moved by the room viewers enter after the VR portion, where you can read about the people in the film. They’re actual migrants who made the desert crossing themselves and drew on their own experiences during filming.
“If you read the guest book at the end, people are writing, ‘All Americans need to experience this,’ and I totally agree,” Morales says.
Over complimentary tea and cookies, Morales and Hoover discover that they saw very different things in their VR goggles. About halfway through the film, Hoover found herself in the middle of a dream sequence, a moment of quiet where a window opens up into a migration disaster from the other side of the world. At that point in his experience, Morales was focused on a family of migrants sitting together at a long table, an apparition of the simple life they long for in America. Neither of the Arlington residents tried entering the body of one of the migrants, which would have given them a surgeon’s-eye view of a human heart beating frantically.
“I missed that,” Morales said. “I have to come back and see it again!”