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"Carne y Arena," the groundbreaking VR art project by Oscar-winning director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu brings to life the fear and violence experienced by refugees crossing the border from Mexico to the US.
The night is chilly in the Sonoran Desert between Arizona and Mexico. You can feel a light breeze; the rocky sand bites into your feet. You hear voices: "Help me! Help me!" a woman shouts in Spanish. She's dragging a wounded body. Like ghosts, two figures come out of nowhere, followed by several others. Some of them carry backpacks, some of them children.
Suddenly, the breeze intensifies, and blinding moonlight pierces through the darkness. The roaring thunder of a helicopter's engine makes you hit the ground. Sirens are howling, and neon shades of red and blue illuminate the contours of the vast nothingness.
Surrounded by cries of frightened men and women, you fail to flee. You turn around - only to realize that a gun is pointed at your face.
This is how the latest project by Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu begins - or, more precisely, it's one possible beginning among many: "No two people go through it the same way," Astrid Welter, head of programs at the Fondazione Prada, told DW.
Entitled "Carne y Arena" (Spanish for Meat and Sand), the work is a seven-minute long virtual reality experience based on the stories of immigrants trespassing to the United States.
"We look at how people engage with virtual reality. They behave similarly but never do the same things. You can stand with the border patrol at their cars and see that a person is reading a book, or you can stay with the immigrants. In the end, anyone can be as detached or involved as they are willing to be," Welter added.
The story unfolds in a darkened hall where the floor has been covered with sand and stones. Before they enter the multi-level narrative, visitors are instructed to take off their shoes and socks and put on a VR headset, headphones and a backpack.
"Carne y Arena" is not a movie: Although the director offers an overall narrative in the work, the people experiencing it are the ones determining the viewpoint and direction. On the other hand, it is not a game, but rather an experimental spatial installation, since it doesn't reflect the viewer's actions. "It is a total immersion into an environment that generates many possibilities: One can be a voyeur, a spectator, a victim, or a prosecutor," explained Welter.
Virtual to some, real for many
Back to the virtual desert: Chaos reigns as border patrol officers are arresting immigrants one by one. As they're kneeling on the ground, one man tries to escape. The officers start yelling orders in simple Spanish. Dogs are barking. "Why are you talking in English?!" a guard asks a man whose hands are behind his back. "I'm a lawyer!" he exclaims. Near him, a young girl - no older than five - is paralyzed, but manages to squeak out a few sentences. Almost instinctively, she raises her hands up as a sign of surrender.
The viewer is then swiftly taken into a dream sequence, without really knowing whose subconsciousness it is. A surreal scene of homey imagery is interlaced with distinctively Mexican symbolism, but its message feels universal. A woman is humming a lullaby, a coyote is reading a book of poetry and a wooden table with food on it slowly turns into a boat.
The first rays of sunlight then replace the obscurity. The pervasive silence is disturbing. A small backpack featuring a cartoon character lies on the desert's ground - it perhaps belongs to the girl who has just been deported. There are bushes with pieces of clothing in them; a plastic bag here and a sock over there.
Empathy instead of statistics
The whole experience is physically and mentally draining: Even before the story begins, one must wait, barefoot, in a cold room with shoes scattered everywhere. You are informed that those dirty flip-flops and sneakers were collected in the area where "Carne y Arena" is set and that they belonged to real refugees.
The project definitely avoids romanticizing the status of being a refugee. "The way we have learned to grasp the global immigrant crisis is news-driven, but this work aims to get into your bones. It's realistic and explicit. It induces fear but also empathy," Welter explained.
"During the making of this project, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing many Mexican and Central American immigrants. I invited some of them to participate so that their journeys would not be just a statistic, but would instead be seen, felt, heard and experienced by others," said Inarritu before the opening in Milan.
The plot of "Carne and Arena" is a re-enactment of true stories, Inarritu explained. Even some of the clothes are pieces those actual people wore while crossing the border.
Inarritu has been exploring this story for several years: Hints of "Carne y Arena" can be seen in his motion picture "Babel" (2006).
With Donald Trump's current policy on immigration and his plans to complete the wall across the Mexican border, such a narrative now feels more poignant than ever. However, to perceive the project as being directed specifically against Trump would be an oversimplification of a much more complex situation that has existed for years.
"It was cathartic and emotional. After many years, the memories of the immigrants finally have a public face," said Inarritu of his project which he started developing four years ago.
After its preview in Cannes and public opening in Milan, the installation will travel to Los Angeles, Mexico City and other destinations. The refugee drama knows no boundaries, after all, and "Carne y Arena" is a unique opportunity to understand the minds and hearts of people who risk their existence in search of a better life.
"Carne y Arena" opens on June 7, 2017, and runs until January 15, 2018, at the Fondazione Prada in Milan. Visitors must register a time slot online.