Though fraught with anxiety in the moment, the tug-of-war between art and technology often appears in retrospect to have expanded the boundaries of creative expression. Perhaps, then, we will look back on Cannes Film Festival 2017 as one such watershed moment, particularly for the medium of the moving picture.
If we hesitate to use the word cinema, it is because the six-to-seven minute virtual reality installation, entitled Carne y Arena, is hardly your ordinary film. Untethered from the four borders of a screen, the production is experienced as an environment of film. On the occasion of the festival, an empty airplane hangar at Cannes-Mandelieu airport is chosen as the venue for the exhibit. A spectator per screening is invited inside, footwear removed at the door to feel the specially-furnished sand floor. You put on the virtual reality gear you are given, and right then, the physical reality of the hangar gives way to another, “psychophysical” reality created by the device. During the coming minutes, wherever you turn — whether to the right, to the left; back or front — you are relentlessly confronted by a world imagined by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, celebrated for films such as Babel.
But the world of Carne y Arena, meaning flesh and sand, is not entirely fictional — indeed, not even mostly. It is a short recreation of the very real experience lived by thousands of Central and South American migrants as they come up to the Mexico-U.S. border, kilometers of sandy terrain behind them. VR goggles on, you are in the midst of these migrants — perhaps one of them — and soon enough border police arrive in a commotion of huge vehicles, pointing their guns everywhere around you. You are rendered helpless, feeling stalked as an animal might be.
“No-one lives the experience in the same way,” Iñárritu told Le Point. “Some spectators take possession of the space aggressively, others retreat, or panic, or cry.” And this is exactly what the director intended: to sensitize people to what’s happening on this very planet. Speaking still to Le Point, he says, “We have arrived at such an indifference to reality that, paradoxically, we have to use technology to get people to care again.”
The response has been mostly positive. Some say they will never again see the Mexican migrants in their town in the same way. And in this, perhaps we can cautiously proclaim the VR production a success. For so long, we have heard the observation made that digital technologies — television, games, the internet — numb us to violent and unjust realities. Maybe now, with Carne y Arena serving as a model, we will start to see technology, especially in the hands of artists, transporting people to such realities for a better understanding.