VR has long been seen as the future of entertainment, yet no film or TV production has been able to capture the true need for a 360-degree canvas — that is, until now. At Cannes, Alejandro Iñarritu unveiled his virtual reality experience, “Carne y Arena” (Flesh and Sand, or “Virtually Present, Physically Invisible,” as the exhibition is known at LACMA where it is on display). Critics could not stop raving, calling it “shattering” and “groundbreaking.”
The installation takes the participant through an attempt to cross the U.S./Mexico border, a horrific experience for so many immigrants. The viewer gets to observe violent border captures and watch dehydrated people, clearly in pain, being taken by police to detention centers. The participant can wander around or stay in place, watch the immigrants or the police while standing in the middle of the scene or to the side. Sticking your head inside one of the bodies shows its pulsing heart, which is just one way of inviting the participant to explore the situation like a video game of sorts.
The trick with VR, as well as a filmmaker’s greatest challenge, has always been to direct the action when the participant is free to direct their gaze wherever, whenever. Iñarritu appears to solve this by not giving the participant a narrative so much as a six-minute immersion into hell on earth.
“My intention was to experiment with VR technology to explore the human condition in an attempt to break the dictatorship of the frame, within which things are just observed, and claim the space to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts,” the director has said.
The Mexican director created the installation with Emmanuel Lubezki, his cinematographer on both “Birdman” and “The Revenant.”
“‘Birdman’ and ‘Revenant’ were immersive. There’s an immediacy. This is all of that and even more,” the cinematographer told Variety in May. Both men note that “Carne y Arena” is not cinema, but if studios do not find a way to integrate VR into traditional filmmaking soon they risk becoming irrelevant.
Iñarritu will receive a rare special Oscar from the Academy, “in recognition of a visionary and powerful experience in storytelling.” Iñarritu and Lubezki have “opened for us new doors of cinematic perception,” AMPAS president John Bailey said. “More than even a creative breakthrough in the still emerging form of virtual reality, it viscerally connects us to the hot-button political and social realities of the U.S.-Mexico border.”
“My intention was to experiment with VR technology to explore the human condition in an attempt to break the dictatorship of the frame.”