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Denver lands CARNE y ARENA, a powerful immersive, virtual reality experience about refugees

Filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu collected the stories of refugees and guards, using VR goggles to share the very real anguish and terror of surreptitious crossings of the southern border

A user in the CARNE y ARENA experience. (Emmanuel Lubezki)
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An immersive virtual reality experience in the time of COVID?

You are right to be skeptical.

First, know that this groundbreaking virtual reality experience is safer than a trip to the grocery store, in terms of germs, and healthier than breathing Colorado’s ash-filled air, in terms of raging wildfires. No crowds. Appropriate preventive measures. Clean air. Plus, it is amazing, raising the value of VR as an artistic storytelling medium.

The installation “CARNE y ARENA” (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible), by renowned Mexican film director Alejandro Iñárritu, packs an emotional punch and comes at a time when it’s just possible the country could use a jolt of empathy.

The immersive experience lies at the intersection of cinema, VR and politics, exploring the motivations and experiences of immigrants and refugees. The dehumanizing, tortuous treatment of folks seeking safety and a better life is telegraphed by the stray shoes and socks left behind in the desert, which visitors encounter even before they enter the VR scene.

Having won acclaim around the world, the installation landed in the huge former hangar at Stanley Marketplace in Aurora, through January. Tickets are $35-$55, depending on time of day and demand, available through denvercenter.org.

The 20-minute solo journey is mind-blowing. (The official program notes the show is not recommended for individuals with claustrophobia, heart conditions, back conditions, a history of seizures, epilepsy, etc.)

MORE: There’s a lot of buzz around “immersive” experiences in art, theater and entertainment. But is it art?

Once outfitted with a virtual reality visor and a backpack (“so that I can pull you back if you’re about to hit a wall,” an assistant explains), visitors are viscerally absorbed in the scene.

You are there: Barefoot, i.e. vulnerable, in the middle of the desert in the pitch black night, slowly surrounded by advancing men, women and children making their way to a better place. Suddenly you encounter the lights, sirens, barking dogs and yelling officers of the border patrol. The adrenaline rush is real. So are the stories being reenacted.

Once your heart rate slows enough to exit the sand-filled space, you encounter a hallway lined with video portraits of the people you just interacted with virtually.

Selena, a mother from Guatemala, has her image digitally recreated for CARNE y ARENA, an immersive art experience now open at Stanley Marketplace in Aurora. (Chachi Ramirez, Legendary)

In background material online, the director explains he met with a number of Mexican and Central American refugees and interviewed them. “Their life stories haunted me, so I invited some of them to collaborate with me on the project. My intention was to experiment with VR technology to explore the human condition in an attempt to break the dictatorship of the frame — within which things are just observed — and claim the space to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin and into their hearts.”

These immigrants didn’t just recount their stories, they replayed them for the cameras. “They reenacted their personal border crossings to create the narrative you just experienced,” a placard explains. In close-ups they tell their stories (in English and Spanish) explaining why they were compelled to attempt the border crossing — to seek a better life, to feed their families, to escape violence. Typical is Carmen, age 22, from Honduras, who says, “gangs threatened to kill me if I didn’t transport their guns.” Atypical in this mix is the older white man from California, John, a border patrol member, who expresses empathy after describing the horrific scenes he has witnessed.

Iñárritu, the Oscar-winning filmmaker (“Birdman: Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” and “The Revenant”), in 2017 won a special Academy Award for directing this installation. That same year, “CARNE y ARENA” previewed at the Cannes Film Festival as the first VR project ever included in the official selection of the festival. The work reunites frequent collaborators Iñárritu and ILMxLAB, Lucasfilm Ltd.’s immersive entertainment studio.

Alejandro Iñarritu and a baker from El Salvador at a motion-capture shoot for CARNE y ARENA. (Chachi Ramirez, Legendary)

Kudos to Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Legendary Entertainment and PHI Studio out of Canada, which handled the VR technology. It’s so realistic, it makes videogame play seem archaic. 

Clearly, this is “a mission-oriented not a profit-oriented endeavor. It’s about creating conversation,” said Charlie Miller, curator of DCPA’s Off-Center. Aurora is the exhibition’s first U.S. stop on a multi-year tour. (Off-Center’s knowledge of the tech side of The Hangar, having used the gargantuan space for previous shows, was helpful to producers; DCPA served as a partner on the sales and marketing side.)

There’s plenty of room for educational outreach alongside the effort. DCPA is working with immigrant rights and cultural groups, including the Latino Cultural Arts Center and Biennial of the Americas, to hold conversations about the migrant experience, as well as with playwrights to talk about trauma in storytelling.

Immersive theater can be tricky, sometimes the story takes a backseat to the technology, sometimes it’s tough for the audience to fully let go and believe in the moment. In “CARNE y ARENA,” none of those problems interfere. The journey is short but stunning, the story is powerful, the technology seamless.

There’s nothing gimmicky about this VR experience. Like the best film or theater, it leaves a lasting impression.

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