Carne y Arena

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Carne Y Arena is a 2017 VR installation written and directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki.

"Based on true accounts, the superficial lines between subject and bystander are blurred and bound together, allowing individuals to walk in a vast space and thoroughly live a fragment of the refugees' personal journeys." SOURCE: IMDB


People working with VR always insist on the word “experience” to describe what they are making. I understand the need to distance their work from traditional film and video installations, but to me, it often feels a bit forced to use that word, and I end up just murmuring something about “the thing” we just “saw.”

With Carne y Arena I don´t have that hesitation. It really is an experience, and there is no better word to describe it. It is not a story; it is not a documentary, it is not a game; it is simply an experience. An experience brought to me through the safety of a pair of goggles, together with a sense of urgency due to the topicality of the real-life events on which it is based.

It is the experience of being transported to a subtly stylized, strange universe that resembles my own, but not in a photorealistic way. It is a representation with avatars, gloomy and yet beautifully lit and designed, and I am there, in the cold sand of the nighttime desert.

I am a witness as, by the break of dawn, an exhausted group of emigrants, children and grownups, some injured, is spotted by a patrolling helicopter and surrounded by border police, with guns pointed at them and dogs barking. I am there, as a ghost presence, able to walk around, come up close and into the center of the action, being blinded by Maglite’s and deafened by a helicopter.

The experience doesn´t cover anything apart from this moment of getting caught and surrounded. There is a dream sequence in the middle involving a meal and a table (which only makes sense to me when reading some of the backstories afterward), but even this doesn´t interfere with the ‘unity of time, place and action’ feeling. Nothing is happening that I could not know by reading a newspaper or watching a documentary, no new perspectives or unexpected story twists. The power lies in the feeling of being there, in the sense of presence that is strengthened by walking around with your bare feet in the cold, hard desert sand. A friendly thug at my backpack every time I walk too close to the walls of the black box theatre location makes me confident enough to roam around freely in the virtual space, taking different perspectives and positions towards the action.

A bit overwhelmed by the unexpected intensity of the scene, I find myself moving away a bit, creating some distance, yet empathizing strongly with the emigrants being bossed around and forced to lie face down in the sand. At the end (spoiler) one of the agents points his gun and Maglite towards me as well and shouts at me to get down on my knees. Well aware of his "virtuality", I refuse to play along, but I do feel the impact of having a weapon directed at me.

Walking out of the experience (which ended a bit abruptly) I recollected my shoes from a prisonlike locker and sat on a bench while waiting to be allowed into the next room. I asked myself what it was that had gripped me so intensely a minute earlier, but now seemed so far away. It was a first for me in VR, that I had tears streaming down the inside of my goggles (but then I´m easily moved, always the one to come tear-eyed out of the cinema when everyone else is like “really…?”).

Thinking back, it was a bit like witnessing an accident in the street. You are gripped with the intensity and the brutality, and by feeling helpless in the face of other people´s despair. Even if I wouldn´t say that Carne y Arena is a fully perfected and developed work, it did give me an insight into what VR can be, and where it might be headed.

It is inspiring and at the same time a bit scary. What if this is the future of first-person shooter games? What will happen if VR is used to desensitize soldiers or terrorists? Or just normal kids looking for a thrill? What will they be capable off afterward?

Carne y Arena indeed goes a step further than any other experience I have encountered in this feeling of transportation and presence. It may seem easy and straightforward, but the amount of effort put into the technical and artistic execution of this production is unique. Sound-design, imagery, mise-en-scene, perspective, selection of impactful moments; when all these come together like in Carne y Arena, you get a convincing, virtual environment in which you feel a part of the action and connect to the characters. It is not an easy task, and apparently, it takes an achieved filmmaker like Iñárritu and a cinematographer like Lubezki to envision that.

Again, it is not a story with layers and psychology; it is an experience. Maybe that is enough for the time being.

THE FIRST VR OSCAR In 2017 Carne y Arena became the first VR work to receive an Oscar award, receiving a special Oscar “in recognition of a visionary and powerful experience in storytelling.”

The motivation for the Oscar was that the piece has “opened for us new doors of cinematic perception. Inarritu’s multimedia art and cinema experience is a deeply emotional and physically immersive venture into the world of migrants crossing the desert of the American southwest in early dawn light. 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.”
SOURCE: Variety