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How Alejandro G. Iñárritu Used Virtual Reality to Tackle Illegal Immigration

The sand is coarse under foot and the moonlight barely illuminates the way through the rocky desert terrain as you edge along the Mexican and American border. Suddenly there’s shouting. Vans hurtle forward in the distance, helicopters whirl overhead, as border guards leap out of the shadows, rifles at the ready, ordering you and your fellow immigrants to your knees.

No, this is not a ripped-from-the-headlines version of a chose your own adventure game. It’s a shattering new virtual reality experience from Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki called “Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible),” that is being unveiled at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Filmmakers have been toying with virtual reality for years, but there’s never been an installation of quite this size and scope. Usually, Iñárritu told Variety, the technology has been used to hawk Hollywood blockbusters, not to tackle hot button issues.

“The big mistake of VR is that it has been considered an extension of cinema,” said Iñárritu. “It has been considered a promotional tool. It has been devalued. This is an art in itself.”

The roughly six-minute experience is being backed by Legendary Entertainment and Fondazione Prada, neither of whom plan to make a penny on the installation. It will be exhibited at Fondazione Prada in Milan before coming to the Los Angeles County Art Museum.

The late Roger Ebert famously called the movies an “empathy machine.” “Carne y Arena” may not be a movie, but it is very much in that mold. At a time when Europe is being rocked by a migrant crisis and immigration is a political touchpoint in the United States, “Carne y Arena” is trying to make viewers appreciate the risks that refugees take in search of a better life. Iñárritu, whose film credits include “Birdman” and “The Revenant,” said that many Mexicans are fleeing gang violence that has made the country the second deadliest in the world after Syria.

“The urgency is about people understanding that 60% or 65% of these people are kids or women running for their lives,” said Iñárritu. “These people are running from wars. They’re not out to get some dollars.”

Iñárritu first told Lubezki, an Oscar-winning cinematographer and frequent collaborator, about the project four years ago, well before Donald Trump used anger over illegal immigration to help propel himself into the White House. President Trump’s rise has given the issue more immediacy, just as his sharp rhetoric, calling some Mexicans “rapists” and “murderers,” clearly infuriates the filmmakers.

“For this guy to call them rapists and call them criminals is cruel,” said Iñárritu. “He’s making these vulnerable people into an enemy.”

Both men are careful to note that “Carne y Arena” is not cinema, with a director dictating where a viewer’s eye is meant to land. It’s a 360 degree experience that is its own beast. But Lubezki believes virtual reality is a natural extension of recent works such as “The Revenant” and “Birdman” that used long takes to create a feeling of verisimilitude and plunge people into a frontier landscape or backstage on Broadway.

“We’ve been looking for this,” said Lubezki. “‘Birdman’ and ‘Revenant’ were immersive. There’s an immediacy. This is all of that and even more.”

The two men plan on doing future viral reality installations. After “Carne y Arena,” Lubezki says returning to traditional filmmaking will be difficult.

Iñárritu thinks that soon traditional films, with their flat screens and traditional plotting will seem anachronistic to a rising generation looking for something more experiential. He warns that studios ignore the medium at their own peril.

“If the studios don’t get into it, they will be irrelevant soon,” he said. “Filmmakers will be very attracted to this.”

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