This Virtual Reality Experience Gives Visitors a Firsthand Look at the Lives of Refugees

While immigration issues are frequently debated in American politics — most of us have never experienced life as an immigrant or refugee. That’s exactly why Alejandro G. Iñárritu — successful Mexican film director — came up with the concept of CARNE y ARENA. CARNE y ARENA is a virtual reality experience that allows visitors to take a firsthand glimpse at the lives of immigrants crossing the US – Mexican border. This Oscar-winning work was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and has been featured around the world. Yet for the next couple of months — Stanley Marketplace in Aurora will be home to this powerful experience.

Iñárritu developed this project with help from Mexican and Central American refugees — who each shared their own personal testimonies of how and why they immigrated. The virtual reality film has no actors — visitors will walk alongside real immigrants who have reenacted their experiences.

AGI directing during a motion capture shoot. Photo by Chachi Ramirez.

If you visit CARNE y ARENA, you’ll be taken along for a multi-sensory experience like no other. Iñárritu and his team have thought of nearly everything. From temperature changes to wearing a backpack during the virtual reality portion of the project — every detail has been thought out to allow viewers to truly experience life as a migrant. The first thing you may notice is how dark the installation is — meant to mimic the conditions of crossing the border at night. You’ll also see a piece of the actual wall taken from the U.S. – Mexico border — which truly sets the scene as you enter the experience.

In the virtual reality section— which is around 20 minutes long — visitors walk alongside a group of migrants as they traverse the desert landscape. You will be requested to take off your socks and shoes and walk on sandy ground — a small detail that makes the experience so much more realistic. Eventually, the group of migrants is stopped by border patrol agents. This portion of the film is adrenaline-inducing and can even be frightening — a mirroring of the emotions felt by actual refugees crossing the border.

The border wall on display. Photo by Barbara Urzua.

What stands out the most about this experience is the use of virtual reality technology. Virtual reality has been in development for years, but has only recently become popularized and accessible in gaming. Many people may have never experienced virtual reality before — buying a headset can be pricey. In order to incorporate VR technology into this project — Iñárritu and his team enlisted the help of PHI Centre — an arts organization based out of Montréal. PHI Centre describes its work as intersectionality of art and technology. A challenge the team faced was optimizing the virtual reality technology to travel with the experience.

“When we were discussing the optimization of CARNE y ARENA, we wanted to ensure that there was no compromise on quality,” representatives from PHI Centre said. “We agreed that the cinematographic experience needed to be of the highest quality possible while also making it wirelessly accessible to allow for a free-roaming experience in the space.”

Visitors will find that the virtual reality experience truly is seamless. It is surprisingly easy to forget that you are wearing a headset. CARNE y ARENA truly depends on flawless technology in order to deliver a realistic and profound experience.

PHI Centre representatives also shared that virtual technology seems to be the way of the future — especially for art. The technology allows for artists to control every aspect of how their art is received — including the surrounding environment. Work is also being done to allow users to meet with friends over VR, encouraging social interaction — something that is a breakthrough during the coronavirus pandemic.

Luis, a lawyer, rehearses in a motion capture suit. Photo by Chachi Ramirez.

The intersection of art and technology in CARNE y ARENA was a risk that Iñárritu took when developing this project — yet the final result is nothing short of mind-blowing. When you put on the VR headset — you will experience hope, anticipation, anxiety and ultimately fear. You may be eager to rip the headset off and return to the comfort of Stanley Marketplace. What is most important to remember — however — is that this is a real experience faced by people every day. So far this year — 400,000 migrants have attempted to cross the US – Mexico border. For them — the luxury of ripping off a headset does not exist. While the logistics of immigration law are a hot topic in politics — this art experience should not be a controversial one. Instead, it should serve a reminder of our privilege and it should deliver a lesson of empathy.

CARNE y ARENA is open through January 30. Tickets must be purchased online and are $35 – $55, depending on date and time. Visitors must be 15 or older, children 13 -15 must have a signed waiver and parental accompaniment. Stanley Marketplace is located at 2501 Dallas Street, Aurora.