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Cannes 2017: Alejandro G. Iñárritu's virtual-reality experiment, "Carne y Arena"

If you had extra time at Cannes this year, you could hop in an official festival Renault and be driven 20 minutes along the Mediterranean to the Aéroport Cannes Mandelieu, a small-craft airport where "Carne y Arena," the first virtual-reality piece to be taken as part of the official selection, is being staged through today. The installation comes from two-time Best Director Oscar winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who based the project on interviews with Mexican and Central American migrants to the United States.

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They shared their experiences of border crossing and were also filmed, so that Iñárritu and his camera and effects teams—including his regular cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki—could create and work with photorealistic avatars. For six and a half minutes, viewers of (participants in?) "Carne y Arena" are caught up in a raid in the Arizona desert, as American government officials capture the immigrants in the dead of night.

The experience inspires cognitive dissonance on several fronts, not least because the ride to the airport is incongruously scenic. After a waiver-signing and a wait (there's a spread of the usual Cannes beverages, including Perrier), visitors enter a preparation area where they are instructed to remove their shoes and socks. This is meant to augment the reality: "Carne y Arena" participants don backpacks and walk around in the sand while they wear their virtual reality goggles, the better to simulate the experience of crossing through the desert.

"Carne y Arena" is certainly visceral. During the experience, you are blinded by the lights of a sudden helicopter approach; forcefully ordered to get on the ground; and face down the barrel of a gun. The confusion and trauma of the incident is dizzying, even overwhelming. There's also a subtle existential dilemma for the viewer: You can choose to stand with the migrants and follow orders as they do, or to step to the side and stand apart from them. You alone are capable of standing next to the agents without fear of intimidation or reprisal.

While it succeeds in making the raid feel brutal, "Carne y Arena" is also a long way from feeling real. At its worst, it smacks of condescension. ("Experience life as a migrant: the video game.") The avatars, though taken from real photographs, nevertheless fall into the uncanny valley, with slightly rubbery skin and inexpressive eyes. The sense that "Carne y Arena" is an empathetic exercise is shattered whenever you try to look at the face of a mother or a child.

The small exhibit that follows the VR component—a gallery with footage of and quotes from the real immigrants—is much more powerful for being minimalist. It doesn't presume to put you so squarely in someone else's shoes, as if it were possible for that to happen at one of most lavish film festivals in the world, moments before you step back into a Renault for a beachfront drive.

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