What It’s Like to Cross the Sonoran Desert in Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s Virtual Reality Film ‘Carne y Arena’

Special Award Winner Alejandro González Iñárritu speaks onstage at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 9th Annual Governors Awards on November 11, 2017. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s virtual reality installation, Carne y Arena (Virtually present, Physically invisible), had its inception over a decade ago in 2005 when the director was doing research for his Academy Award-nominated film Babel, specifically the sequence where Adriana Barraza’s character is lost in the middle of the desert with her bosses’ white children after taking them to a wedding in Tijuana. Iñárritu interviewed border patrols agents and immigrants who had gone through a similar ordeal.

Later, when he was shooting that part of the movie in Tijuana, he heard a story on the radio about a migrant woman and her son, who had been abandoned by their group in the desert after she injured her ankle. She was wearing white zapatos de charol from her wedding and had a small yellow towel to cover her face from the dust. Realizing her son would die with her if he didn’t leave, the mother sent him to get help. Border patrol found the boy and deported him to Mexico. His grandfather was able to get help from police to look for his daughter’s remains. Only her bones, the shoes, and the towel were found, and despite the tragic circumstances, the older man was thankful to at least be able to bury his daughter. The story impacted the director so deeply that he decided to include those shoes and towel in Carne y Arena. Iñárritu shared these and other details about the project during a recent conversation at LACMA, one of three museums around the world hosting the sensorial experience.

Carne y Arena, which was first presented at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, puts the user in the middle of a tense scene: while attempting to cross the border by trekking through the harsh conditions of the Sonoran desert, a group of immigrants are violently intercepted by border patrol. While the majority of the exhibit is experienced through a VR headset and headphones, it’s the physical elements of the installation – the sand on the user’s flesh – that truly take it to another, more vivid, dimension. I had the privilege to test out Carne y Arena and it was an emotional and intense undertaking, to say the least.

I was asked to remove my shoes and socks in an incredibly cold room which resembles a border patrol holding cell… Then, barking dogs, a helicopter, and an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness took over as the intensity rose.

For Iñárritu, the most striking aspect of VR is how something that doesn’t exist in the physical realm can have a huge impact on a one’s perception. “Nothing actually exists. It’s an invention of your wired brain and it’s a kind of phenomenon between your consciousness, your memories, and your own understanding of yourself and how you project yourself in others. The ability that you have, or don’t have, to do that,” he said. Carne y Arena, which became the first VR film to receive an honorary Oscar back in November, is meant to be an individual undertaking. Iñárritu’s long-time collaborator, three-time Academy Award winner, cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki was part of the equation behind the camera once again.

First, I was asked to remove my shoes and socks in an incredibly cold room, also known by immigrants as “the freezer,” which resembles a border patrol holding cell. Shoes and other personal items that belonged to men and women who lost their lives in the desert lingered in the space. My naked feet touched the ground and the instant shock from the temperature change put me in an uncomfortable position. For a few seconds that felt eternal, I sat on a bench waiting for an alarm to go off instructing me to head into the next room. Two people were waiting for me in the large space lit in dim reddish hues. My first reaction was to look at the ground as I felt the sand and other debris making contact with the bottom of my feet. The staff helped me put on a backpack, which adds to the realism of the experience, as well as the headset and headphones that transported me to the Sonoran desert virtually. The quiet scene soon transformed into a hyper-stimulating setting that forced my body to react in a very real physical way.

“I think the moment the sand touches your feet, the air of the helicopter, and the breeze of the desert touch your skin, your body can’t lie. When your body is telling you this is happening, this is real, even if only in 5 percent of your experience, that helps people transcend to another perception or state of mind. When the police talk to you, then you are no longer a visitor and you are a participant. You become a migrant that people are threatening. They feel what it feels to really walk in someone else’s shoes. When you take off your shoes you feel so vulnerable.”

A group of immigrants appeared, followed by the foreboding presence of border patrol officers trying to obtain information about their coyote and where they were from. Some of the immigrants spoke Spanish, others only an indigenous language, which complicated communication with the aggressive authorities. I looked around and walked in a few different directions. I noticed I was reluctant to approach the characters directly. I moved closer to look at a mother and her child who was not feeling well. Then, barking dogs, a helicopter, and an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness took over as the intensity rose.

The men and women who served as reference and whose stories shaped the piece were actual migrants who had crossed the desert in precarious conditions. As non-actors, they had to learn to be honest with their emotions and to understand their physicality. They had to remember and reenact that dark chapter in their lives, which was cathartic for many of them. Not only their minds, but also their bodies remembered the horrible moment of crossing that desert and whatever they went through: people killed in from of them, people that got lost, people that got sick.

I couldn’t help but feel like I was truly in danger. I walked among the immigrants and experienced their fear, at least as much as you can from the safety of a VR installation.

It was an emotional challenge for them to really adapt to that, share it, control it, and then synchronize it. In addition to sessions wearing mocaps to capture the movements of their muscles and numerous theatrical rehearsals, Iñárritu also took them back to the desert and asked them to bring the clothes that they crossed the border with. Most of them kept one of the pieces as a lucky charm.

I couldn’t help but feel like I was truly in danger. I walked among the immigrants and experienced their fear, at least as much as you can from the safety of a VR installation. In the middle of the action, there was a small and magical realist respite that elevated the cinematic value of the piece and made a connection with other regions of the world where migrants risks their lives for a chance at survival.

Although I remained a fly on the wall for most of the running time, near the end, the tables turned and I became another migrant, who was fearful and at the mercy of the agents. It was a sensorial experience that lingered with me long after I walked away.

“[Carne y Arena] is about identity, depending on who you are. There are people that are behind the policemen all the time. They really want to feel protected. There are people who are paralyzed. There are people who go with the kids and start shouting. There are people who really react. It’s all depending who you are or which state of mind you are in at that moment.”

On my way out and into the final section of the exhibit, the subtle pain in the sole of my feet stayed with me as I put my socks and shoes back on. It was a reminder that what I had just gone through wasn’t just a virtual creation. I was really there with them for a few minutes. I walked through a hall, built partially with discarded materials from the actual fence that divides Mexico and the United States, where there was a dozen video portraits with the stories of the men and women from Mexico and Central America, and a white border patrol officer, that inspired Iñárritu’s work. I was forced to look into their eyes as text, in the first person, came on screen sharing with me the trauma they have braved.

“When I shot those portraits, Chivo and I, and the production team, we went to the desert, and it was scheduled, not intentionally, one day after Donald Trump won. It was a disastrous day, we were all completely shocked and we were in the desert shooting portraits of immigrants with this guy talking on the radio nonstop. I said to these guys, ‘Tell me what you think to the camera but with no words. I don’t want to hear you. Just tell me with your eyes how you feel today.’”

Once the experience was over, I was greeted with a book where visitors write about the feelings or thoughts the installation provoked. Stories from DREAMers who remembered crossing, people thanking Iñárritu and the immigrants for helping them understand through the stories, and other notes in Spanish from those who felt their experience was reflect honestly, covered its pages. “I’ve read some of those comments and I was shocked about how deep they were, I don’t think any film I’ve done in my life has received any of those comments, because it’s beyond “I liked it” or not. This is almost like a religious experience. It’s a transcendental understanding of things. I was very shocked. It’s not just about the emotion. It’s about the understanding,” said Iñárritu.

Fort those of us who haven’t suffered through a life-threatening trial in the flesh, it’ll be impossible to fully comprehend the sheer courage, determination, and perseverance that fuel those who attempt to cross a desert or a sea to reach hope, but Carne y Arena is a great start. To be, even if just for a few minutes, immersed in their pain is humbling and enraging. You can’t leave unmoved, because it’s a piece that appeals to humanity and not politics. Iñárritu believes that if those in power were to feel the sand on their feet like I did in his VR vision, they would see what’s right not ideologically but empathetically. Here is hoping he is right.