Virtually Present, Physically Invisible

The freezing cement stings my heels while, in total solitude, I find myself looking at a pair of sneakers, abandoned beneath a shiny metal bench. The bench sits against the wall of a tight and low space, almost like a container, which is illuminated by a cold, hissing neon light. They are a child’s shoes, thrown in a messy heap of other old shoes, covered with dust and abandoned in this space of suspension and waiting, the first direct reference to the hopeful yet desperate journey undertaken by many migrants across the border between Mexico and the United States, which I too, in a way, am experiencing. I too wait barefoot, in the reconstruction of a hielera in which the police have kept the migrants cramped up for days, for a red light and a siren that will tell me to go through a door. Once I pass the threshold, I am swallowed up by the blackness of a large dark space, cut in two by a horizontal band of dim red light. I take a few steps towards two shadows that ask me to move closer. Now there is an expanse of fine, cold sand beneath my feet, like at the seaside on a summer night, but mixed with sharp, cutting gravel. With tentative steps, almost limping, I reach the shadows: I make out two female faces, which speak to me and ask me for the sake of safety not to run or throw myself on the floor during “the experience” (as they call it). They place a backpack on my shoulders, a VR headset on my head, and earphones over my ears. For a moment, everything goes dark.

Thus begins the experience of Carne y Arena by the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, an installation that allows the visitor, through virtual reality (VR), to take part in the dramatic adventure of a group of migrants intercepted by the U.S. Border Patrol while trying to cross the border at night. Read my essay on Senses of Cinema No. 87 »