Alejandro G. Iñárritu recalls that he first started thinking deeply about the harrowing journeys of Mexican and Central American refugees more than 15 years ago, when he was shooting his 2006 film “Babel.”
One of the movie’s central plotlines involves a Mexican nanny who becomes stranded in the blazing desert of the US-Mexico border with her two young American charges. The acclaimed Mexican director of “The Revenant” said that for years following “Babel’s” release he could not shake his central ideas, about cultural misunderstanding and the arbitrary cruelty of national borders.
“After telling that story of the nanny, I did a lot of research and interviews with border patrols, and I met a lot of immigrants who had made this journey (to the United States),” Iñárritu told The Chronicle during a recent visit to San Francisco. “I was very moved by what I heard. It’s the story of all of our ancestors.”
Now years later, the hundreds of stories Iñárritu heard have been condensed and transformed into his groundbreaking virtual-reality art installation, “Carne y Arena: Virtually Present, Physically Invisible,” currently on view at Craneway Pavilion on the Richmond waterfront through Jan. 28 as part of a worldwide tour.
“Carne y Arena” was the first VR project to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival when it premiered in 2017, and later that year it was awarded a historic special Oscar — Iñárritu’s fifth — “for opening new doors of cinematic perception.”
The immersive, emotionally transporting exhibition takes participants through a roughly 30-minute experience that includes a seven-minute VR sequence. The project grew out of the numerous stories Iñárritu heard from migrants who’d made their way to California and Arizona. He heard hauntingly similar tales of people entrusting coyotes to lead them across the Sonoran desert, and of routinely being caught by US border patrols and held in freezing hielaras (detention rooms).
“I had read incredible articles and books (on immigration and border issues) and seen great documentaries, but even if you are touched by those, they become just numbers,” Iñárritu said. “You move on to the next story, something else gets your attention. You don’t feel the experience.”
After making “The Revenant” — a movie famous for its hyper-realistic grizzly bear attack scene featuring Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio, with San Francisco special effects powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic — Iñárritu wondered if VR technology was advanced enough to bring his new vision to life. He wanted to create an immersive experience that would fully surround audiences in hopes of getting them to feel even a fractional approximation of the distress endured by immigrants at the southern border: to virtually, yet realistically, walk in their shoes.
Iñárritu spent two years developing “Carne y Arena” with LucasFilm’s ILMxLAB and his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki. They transformed his interview subjects’ testimonies about their border captures into 360-degree immersive re-enactments. The immigrants portrayed themselves, rather than actors, often in the same clothes they wore when crossing the border.
Iñárritu — whose latest film, the semi-autobiographical epic “Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” is currently streaming on Netflix (and is Mexico’s Oscar submission this year) — admitted he’s a skeptic about technology. “I normally resist it and doubt it, because we’ve made it our new God,” he said.
He quickly added, however, that in this case he had “the right idea for the medium.”
“I wanted people to feel sensorially, not only with ideas and images, but with the body, because the body does not lie,” he said. “I had the idea of people touching the ground with their feet.”
When visitors first enter “Carne y Arena,” after encountering an actual piece of corrugated border fencing from Naco, Ariz., they walk into a frigid, brightly lit chamber where signs instruct them to remove their shoes and socks. The floor is littered with worn-out shoes, including a dusty pink girls’ sandal, along with water bottles in makeshift burlap carrying straps — all actual objects collected along the US-Mexico border in Arizona over the last seven years. (A sign reminds viewers that more than 10,000 migrants died in the desert during that same period.)
Now barefoot, visitors enter the VR room, a large darkened space covered in sand. An attendant fits every visitor with an Oculus Rift headset, headphones and a backpack. As your eyes adjust, the darkness gives way to a vast pre-dawn desert. A caravan of weary migrants comes into focus staggering forward on foot, including a young boy and a grandmother walking unsteadily. Participants are able to walk through the sand alongside the migrants, and inevitably get caught up in their plight when the scene turns chaotic. A helicopter is heard above, its spotlight trained on the people below. Wind blows. Suddenly, border agents with rifles and dogs are on the ground yelling in Spanish and English to put your hands up.
Just as Iñárritu intended, the lines between subject and bystander are blurred, creating an experience that’s distinct — more emotional, visceral and, frankly, terrifying — from most films.
ILMxLAB Visual Design Director Tim Alexander, who Iñárritu calls “the genius who put this together technically,” created effects for “Jurassic World” and the Harry Potter movies over a 20-year career at ILM. “Nothing else I’ve worked on to this day has had this kind of impact, where people’s reactions are this powerful,” Alexander said from his office in the Presidio. “I’ve seen people try to hide behind bushes or start crying, or yell out.”
Iñárritu recalled seeing “one guy in Cannes who went down to his knees and tried to defend the indigenous little boy when the police were shouting. He wanted to protect him. He was lost in the experience. With cinema you are just observing, but here you can react.”
A hallway outside the VR room allows people to digest the feelings likely stirred up by the VR experience. The walls are lined with small screens showing short video testimonies from a handful of the immigrants whose stories were re-enacted — like Luis, now 36, who made the journey from Mexico at age 9 and was carried across the Rio Grande with his 4- month-old sister. (Luis went on to become the first undocumented immigrant to graduate from the UCLA Law School.)
From his perspective behind the camera, Iñárritu said that VR filmmaking felt liberating in its freedom from the two-dimensional constraints of a movie frame — and also endlessly challenging.
“You can’t control if someone is going to walk forward or back, and what they’ll see if they turn their head,” he said. “There are 14 people walking all around you in the desert and each of their narratives was important, so we had to create dialogue and what’s happening with each of them at any time.
“Cinema is much more primitive. It’s made of frames and moments. Here I’m giving audiences the whole 360-degree world.”
“Carne y Arena”: Virtual reality experience. On view through Jan. 28. Timed tickets $24.48-$27.20. Must be age 15 or older with valid ID. Craneway Pavilion, 1414 Harbor Way S, Richmond. carne-y-arena.com