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‘FLESH AND SAND’

July 16, 2017

Carne y Arena, meaning Flesh and Sand, marks the fifth time writerdirector Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have come together on a project. With their past collaborations, the Mexican filmmakers have consciously attempted to break new ground in film.

This newest work pushes the envelope of cinema even further.

It’s a brilliant, arresting and highly affecting virtual reality installation, plunging the viewer deep into the desert across the Mexico-US border.

Lasting five to six minutes, the installation premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and has now moved on to the Fondazione Prada in Milan, where the person taking part in it becomes a silent bystander to a very real issue in an unsafe and risky environment. But you don’t think that necessarily. No, you think that you’re actively part of the action and not just a passive observer.

The first thing that hits you is the cold. You are told to remove your shoes and socks in an ominous-looking antechamber, where everything is dimly lit and items of clothing are strewn across the floor. Once the alarm sounds, you get to enter the main space, where you have to stomp barefoot on stony sand to get to the middle. You feel slightly uncomfortable and inconvenienced.

You feel as though you’re part of the many refugees and immigrants that you see, who are trying to make it across the border. And once you hear the helicopter rumbling overhead and see the border patrol cars arriving, you think that you’re done for. You think that this is where your journey ends — even though for you, the viewer, it’s all makebelieve and you have no influence on the proceedings whatsoever.

The first thing that hits you is the cold. You are told to remove your shoes and socks in an ominous-looking antechamber, where everything is dimly lit and items of clothing are strewn across the floor.

Once the alarm sounds, you get to enter the main space, where you have to stomp barefoot on stony sand to get to the middle. As perverse as it sounds, you do feel slightly uncomfortable and inconvenienced without adequate footwear at first, but that becomes secondary as soon as you put on the heavy backpack, the VR goggles and the headphones. The audio-visual portion is structured into three parts: first you come across the immigrants and refugees and are apprehended by the police; in the second, night has fallen and you cannot seem to differentiate between what’s meant to be real and what’s surreal; and finally, it is daytime again, where you’re left behind with nothing but the eerie soundlessness of the vast desert.

Surely, there is a discussion to be had about whether Carne y Arena is moral and correct, given that you’re literally trying to put yourself in the place of a refugee through technology.

But once the gear is off, there’s a real sobering moment. You walk into the last room and get to see all the refugees and immigrants from the installation once more, their faces lit up on small screens. You get to know their names and read up on their lives and realise that these weren’t just actors. Their genuine experiences helped inform the making of this project. And then the intent of the makers becomes clear: Carne y Arena is never meant to manipulate, but enlighten. And it manages to do so effectively.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 16th, 2017