Count on Alejandro González Iñárritu to be at the forefront of a new genre. “It is not cinema,” he told me Thursday after I experienced his extraordinary VRimmersion “Carne Y Arena” at a special warehouse installation 30 minutes outside of Cannes.
Here’s why “Carne y Arena” is amazing — but it’s not a movie.
It’s a museum installation
The six-and-a-half minute VR piece is only part of the display that will be mounted (on a grander and more elegant scale) first in June at the Prada Foundation in Milan and then in July at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, followed by other museums around the world.
“If people come here with idea to see a short film, it’s wrong,” he said. “It’s like taking two hours to go to the Biennale in Venice. That’s how you have to see it, to experience it as a human being and not criticize the plot. Everything I want to say is here. No applause. No more two-hour rhetoric or political speeches.”
Iñárritu showed “Carne Y Arena” to Cannes director Thierry Fremaux at a warehouse in L.A. without knowing his resistance to VR. (Cannes programmed “Amores Perros,” which won Critics’ Week, “Babel,” which won Best Director, and “Biutiful.”)
It’s the first VR to be shown in Cannes, and it took some doing to get it finished in time. “The Revenant” producer Mary Parent (who now runs Legendary) helped complete the complex ILM project, along with Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki.
After working with ILM on “The Revenant,” the director realized that, together, they could push the technology for his long-considered experimental VR piece. And after he visited the recovered sunken ship in Libya where some 700 refugees drowned, most of them children, he understood that the issue of immigration and refugees was the same all over the world. “Nobody knows 65% of refugees are running from wars and gangs where women are raped,” he said.
It’s semi-fictionized ethnography
Iñárritu went to Casa Libra and other organizations helping displaced people from Latin America, many of them from Honduras and Guatamala. They travel through Mexico via a series of “coyotes,” often piled like logs on top of each other in trucks; most of the time, they are caught and detained by U.S. border patrols and helicopters.
“Carne y Arena” — “Flesh and Sand” — takes us to one of those locations for a series of border captures. We are in the desert, where we see dehydrated people with bloody feet, often having lost their shoes, taken violently by cops to detention centers. (Outside the VR experience of the piece, we learn that later they are placed in “freezers” — very cold rooms, which are remembered with horror by anyone who has experienced them.)
The director became increasingly sensitive to the issue of immigration while researching “Babel.” He worked steadily on “Carne y Arena” for a year, doing research on technology and on his subjects, inviting them to join theater workshops. He wrote the scenario based on their true stories, and filmed them.
“It’s very truthful,” he said. “The coyote was a real guy who came out of 15 years in jail.” He calls the reenactments “semi-fictionized ethnography. I don’t know if it’s documentary. Whatever this medium is, it’s another kind of film.”
It’s an interactive experience
Parent instructed me to leave my purse behind as I walked into a clinical white “freezer” where I stowed my shoes. When the red light flashed, I opened a door and walked barefoot into a huge black box covered with sand where two spotters gently fitted me with a backpack, VR goggles, and headphones, and told me they’d tug me if I was about to walk into a wall. I felt safe, without any of the vertiginous disorientation I’ve experienced with more primitive VR.
The 360-degree immersion began. As I got my magic-hour bearings in the scrubby desert with mountains in the distance, people began to appear in the bushes, making noises of discomfort and pain, and as it got dark, they cowered and screamed as a helicopter deafeningly lands — the ground vibrating — and border patrol agents bark orders and threaten, pointing guns, ordering them to “get down!” It’s noisy, scary chaos, as cops pull people out of hiding, wrestle them into submission, and drag them away.
The helicopter landings are deafening and terrifying. One woman lies moaning in the sand with an injured foot, another is trying to help her; the cops eventually stand her up. Several sequences are separated by weird disintegrating flashes. One cop turned and looked at me, which was unnerving. (Up close, the faces are clearly digital.)
I could wander the terrain at will — I stuck my hand through some of the bodies, but learned afterward that you must shove your head into a body to see its pulsing heart — so it helps to be a bolder, more experienced videogame player. Others who have experienced the piece have had guns pointed at them.
In one sequence, a kid stares with a flashlight at something on a long narrow table. A clay-like little man is walking, sinking into a depression in the table, then a miniature boat appears full of people. “That’s my homage to that boat and those people,” Iñárritu said. “This is not a geographical problem, it’s a world problem. It’s like the new Titanic, a symbol that we cannot forget this. This is happening every day.”
According to Iñárritu, every viewer behaves differently. Some stay locked in position, others stay behind the cops, others hang back with the immigrants (as I did), and some hide behind a bush, or drop down obediently when ordered. I did not. I headed into the wall and was tugged back once, which kept me from venturing too far toward the cops again.
“The second time is like sex,” said Iñárritu. “The first time there’s so much to assimilate, the second time you discover. There are many secrets.”
It’s groundbreaking technology
“I did not know technically how to solve this,” he said. “The amount of data and amount of rendering is huge. They had to develop new ILM computer systems to allow this.”
And he’d love to play with this technology again. “It’s going to be getting more accessible,” he said. “This is groundbreaking, very provoking. As filmmakers, none of the grammar tools apply. A film is about frame, the length of a take, the juxtaposition of edited images. A film without a frame is to film as a car without tires. It’s not a car anymore. It’s a leap forward. With cinema, that little hole you see through, I give you 20% as director and you figure out the other 80%. That’s the dialectic.”
“Here I give you 360 degrees, ” he said. “In this, ironically, you have the control. I give you the will, with light and sound and all, but you act unilaterally. It reveals who you are. You can watch Netflix at home, but with this you have to go out. It’s not cinema. It’s being cinema. I like this stretching thing to make people go out of their houses.”
Art is politics
After the piece ends, and you take off the gear and retrieve your shoes, a corridor offers close-ups of the real characters as dramatic transcripts of their first-person stories scroll down. You are forced to look at them, pay attention to them, ingest their stories. They are all different. And they are living among us — some documented, some not.
In these six-and-a-half minutes, the director believes that people will be able to feel what millions of words fail to express. More than 6,000 people have disappeared in Mexico in the last 10 years. One collector has been saving recovered objects from the disappeared: letters from parents to children, shoes, backpacks, clothing, photographs, toothbrushes, glasses. “It’s like a holocaust,” Iñárritu said. “That’s the reality.”
Of course, the current political climate under President Donald Trump isn’t improving the situation. “He’s misleading about what’s going on,” Iñárritu said. “He’s blended concepts of terrorism and immigration, these are two different things. These are vulnerable people. If you use fear to capitalize or to manipulate, to trigger people to hate, and frame them as rapists, that is very unfair. I don’t have a solution for it.”
And the director has no intention of capitalizing on their pain. “We will try to recoup our investment,” he said. “Any money we make goes to a foundation. It’s meant to be an experiment with social technology and we’ll see where it goes.”