CANNES, France – You walk along a high metal fence that once divided Arizona and Mexico and into a small holding cell where you are asked to take off your shoes and socks. All around you are the abandoned shoes of migrants who have been arrested by the border patrol. When a red light flashes, you enter a large chamber with a sand floor. A ragged band of migrants crossing an expansive desert swarms around you.
For a moment, in the dusty twilight, you join their flight.
This is part of Alejandro Iñárritu’s “Carne y Arena” (Virtually present, Physically invisible),” a visual art installation debuting this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s the festival’s first virtual reality film to be an official entry.
The artwork seeks to capture migrants’ experiences crossing the U.S.-México border. It’s centered around a seven-minute virtual reality experience via a headset — taking “Carne y Arena” outside of traditional cinema into an emotional journey.
Iñárritu, the Oscar-winning filmmaker of “Birdman” and “The Revenant,” has been working on the exhibit for four years.
With his regular cinematographer, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, he has regularly tested the boundaries of cinematic powers of immersion with lengthy, fluid takes.
“The highest technology with the most beautiful human beings is a very powerful combination,” Iñárritu said in an interview. “The experience of working with the immigrants was the most inspiring and rewarding part of all these years that I have devoted myself to this project.”
In many ways, the film stands apart. It’s being housed in an airplane hangar about a 15-minute car ride away from the festival’s center. Reporters have been individually shuttled to see it — making it one of Cannes’ hardest tickets to get.
The exhibit officially premieres next month in Milan at Fondazione Prada before appearing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Tlatelolco museum in Mexico City.
But Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux insisted Iñárritu bring it to Cannes first after the filmmaker previewed it for him.
Iñárritu said he was struck by the stories of immigrants from México and Central America while researching the border crossing tale incorporated in his multi-national drama “Babel.”
“I had to do a lot of travel and a lot research with border patrol officers and a lot of immigrants from México and Central America,” said Iñárritu. “And the stories I heard and the situation of these people — which is not even close to what it is now, and it was already tough — they haunted me.”
Much of the power of “Carne y Arena” comes from not just from the virtual reality placement of the viewer amid the immigrants, but of their individual experiences.
Those come out in the installation’s third section: testimonies from the dozen or so immigrants who participated in the project. In the virtual reality piece, they recreate an approximation of their own experiences, some even wearing the clothes they wore then. They range in age, gender and nationality, but all are seeking a better life for themselves or their families.
Iñárritu is far from the only Hollywood filmmaker trying his hand at virtual reality.
Last month, Kathryn Bigelow premiered her “The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes,” made with Imraan Ismail, at the Tribeca Film Festival. A close-up experience with the rangers of Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it was fueled by some of the same motivations as Iñárritu’s project in Cannes.
Directors Jon Favreau and Justin Lin have also made VR works.
Making “Carne y Arena” has convinced Iñárritu of the medium’s capabilities.
“There is an opportunity to liberate the moving image from many, many, many things,” he said. “It’s a quite different way to feel emotions or sensations that sometimes are hard to express. This technology, I think, can offer the possibility to experience those, and articulate them with the mind on another level.”