It took Alejandro González Iñárritu considerable persuasion to present his new piece of work at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. “It’s not cinema,” explains the Oscar-winning Mexican director of Birdman and The Revenant. And he’s not just being modest. Seven minutes in duration, and more of an installation piece than a conventional short film, it’s a curio on the programme, and needs a set-up so specific that you have to be driven about 20 minutes away from the Croisette to see it.
A large hangar beckons, with a walled-off section inside. The wall is of note: it’s a reclaimed, rusted section from the original border wall between Mexico and Arizona, which has since been replaced, and could be rethought again if Donald Trump’s threatened construction comes good.
One at a time, visitors are led in. You take your shoes and socks off in a steel holding cell, and wait for an alarm to sound. Through the next door is the hub of the business: a square space, the size of a volleyball pitch, covered in sand. Two technicians await with an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to place over your skull. And from blackness, a landscape starts to emerge.
It is a xeric shrubland, close to dawn, in or around the Sonoran Desert. You turn your head and see it in 360°. More than this, you walk around in it, barefoot. The headset is attached to a thick wire hanging from the ceiling. To stop you hitting a wall, the technicians give you a gentle tug on the back to warn of getting near one. But within these constraints, you have free rein to explore. I went straight up to a shrub and tried to touch it. No hand appeared where I normally have a hand. This was unsettling. It takes a minute or two to get used to it.
“Nobody has ever done it the same way,” explains Iñárritu afterwards. The crew keep tabs on your behaviour. Out of the mountains, a gaggle of human shapes approach you, without registering your presence. These are recognisably immigrants, and in bad shape, hobbling and trying to carry their children through the murk. When you get close, you realise that they are virtual, not real, rendered with high-end computer graphics. And when you get closer still, bobbing your headset inside them, you see a beating heart and red innards.
Suddenly, a helicopter with a blinding searchlight appears overhead, and humvees pull up. The immigrants are ordered at gunpoint to crouch down in the dirt. I go weak at the knees and join them. “Most people crouch down when they’re told to,” says the director. The illusion is so convincing that it’s scary, and there’s little scarier than being ordered into the dirt at gunpoint, in the near-dark of a barren wilderness thousands of miles from safety.
The title of the piece is Carne y Arena, which translates as “Flesh and Sand”. It also has a subtitle: “Virtually present, Physically invisible”. And what’s key to it is not that you feel you’re in the same boat as these terrified exiles, but that you’re fully aware of all the ways in which you’re not in the same boat at all.
You feel sand on your feet, but nothing hard, prickly, or perilous. You are not freezing. You don’t feel a gunbarrel in your back or the ache of days without sleep. In a gimmick of the software that could easily pass unnoticed, you’re able to cast a shadow, by passing in front of the humvee headlights, or blocking the torch-beam a patrol officer is shining in someone’s face. But a shadow, that least indelible or tactile of human impressions, is the only impact you’re able to make on this rendered environment, or indeed on the story enfolding.
The characters in this short piece are based on specific people – immigrants to the USA whom Iñárritu found to recreate their ordeals in the desert, synthesising their stories into one illustrative set-piece. After you leave the chamber, you see their video portraits on the way out, and can read their testimonies (to use that Hollywood term “backstories” feels infinitely too glib). They speak of desperation, and relief to have even got through alive.
If you’re familiar with Iñárritu’s film work, you may also be reminded of that section in Babel, when Adriana Barraza’s character is stranded in the desert at night and pleads with the border patrol to listen. As a subject, immigration is more on Iñárritu’s mind than ever, under Trump, and it’s hard not to see this piece as a plea for empathy, in a political climate which wants to demonise these souls and expressly describes them all as “rapists”. He has no intention of it being profitable, or released in any way for commercial gain. He has also witnessed a rare variety of responses from the people invited in. “Some people try to put their arms around the immigrants. Some hide behind the officers. Someone started screaming at the top of their lungs.”
Cannes director Thierry Frémaux saw the piece in Los Angeles and pressed Iñárritu to create this version alongside his festival, insisting on the cinematic core of the experience. But it’s very different from the whole idea of cinema, as Iñárritu knows well and articulates precisely. “Film is frame,” he puts it, “and length of take, and juxtaposition in the editing. This is none of that.” Perhaps it’s more that the viewer has unique autonomy to make those decisions for themselves, deciding what to take in, and for how long, and whether to obey the directives of sound design and dialogue which Iñárritu has used to give it structure.
It’s not cinema as we’ve ever known it, that’s for sure. “It’s its own medium,” Iñárritu likes to say. Just as those early film viewers freaked out when the Lumière Brothers premiered "L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare de La Ciotat" in 1896, it ambushes your sensibilities as the first thing of its kind. But it’s a serious endeavour, far from a demo reel, because it wants you to walk like a phantom into these lived experiences, jolting you into reflection because it was someone else, and not you, who lived them.