Admittedly, I am primed to believe the press now when they say that a Mexican has just pioneered a new audiovisual medium. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena (Flesh and Sand) premiered last May at Cannes, and it’s the festival’s first Virtual Reality inclusion. Reviews have claimed that Iñárritu’s piece is pushing the limits of cinema or has simply transcended them. Emails have been sent out instructing journalists to call it, in light of their puzzlement over what it is, an “art installation.” Carne y Arena’s VR experience follows a group of Latin American immigrants attempting to cross the US border. It was first hosted in a spacious hangar, 20 minutes from Cannes, where the audience wore Oculus Rift headsets and walked freely around the virtual Arizona desert until the action begins. It can now be experienced at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Upon first entering the installation, all you hear is the wind and your own steps on the actual sand under your feet. Then you hear murmurs and panting. The bushes move. One person appears, then another. And children. Immigrants drag themselves under the sun; they are led by their smuggler. They walk so closely past you that you might feel compelled to touch them, upon which you realize they can’t feel or see you — but you’ve tried. Within minutes, night falls. The sound of a helicopter quickly goes from faint to unbearable, and all of a sudden it has landed, patrol agents sprawling from it like spiders. Stifled by the helicopter and the cocking of guns, you only hear the screams of those who are near you. Because you were invisible before, you resist the agents’ orders to “get down!” Little do you know that the system can in fact track your position and that you will not be spared. One of them points his gun at you. You obey. You know the hangar’s floor is covered in sand but at this point you don’t think about your Cannes-ready outfit because you feel, as film critic Peter Bradshaw describes it, “lowered, lessened […] subhuman, without even a criminal’s civilian rights.”
Carne y Arena’s political ambitions are obvious, and the use of VR to advance those ambitions is not new. In this sense, the most salient forerunner to Carne y Arena might be some of journalist Nonny de la Peña’s work, which she calls “immersive journalism,” using Virtual Reality to report on humanitarian issues such as imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay and a crisis in a food bank. But there is a key difference. De la Peña’s work is journalistic and documentary, and so her goal is to have viewers learn about these issues while “feel[ing] an extraordinary emotional connection as witnesses” to them. González Iñárritu, by contrast, is a fiction filmmaker. So his goal is to offer viewers an impactful sensory experience as much as a pedagogical one. Where de la Peña puts you in the position of a firsthand witness, González Iñárritu puts you in the position of the migrant subject and makes you go through the experience yourself. “Until you feel it,” he says, “until you feel what it’s like to be 20 years old, not left wing or right wing or any wing, going through something like this, you can’t really talk about it.” Considering this, another forerunner to Carne y Arena could be the films of Michael Haneke. As Haneke himself explains in a 1995 essay, his work explicitly aims to awake viewers from the doze of “media death” to the experience of “real death.” He writes:
The question is not: “What am I allowed to show?” but rather: “What chance do I give the viewer to recognize what it is I am showing?” […] Not: “How do I show violence?” but rather: “How do I show the viewer his own position vis-à-vis violence and its portrayal?”
Haneke’s answer to these how-questions, as anyone who has seen his films will attest, is audiovisual torture. Moira Weigel has called Haneke a new kind of sadist, a sadomodernist, because his aim is, as he puts it, to “rape the spectator into autonomy.” “Autonomy” here means freedom from the rule of mainstream media, and it comes in two steps. First, it involves being aware of — understanding — the violence that takes place around you; second, it involves being able to talk about it and take action. But Haneke’s thesis is that you won’t understand real violence in the first place by reading about it or seeing it on the news — not even “immersive” news. To really understand it, you have to suffer it yourself.
Haneke is thinking in terms of what philosophers call “standpoint epistemology,” the view that there is a special kind of phenomena that you can’t understand unless you go through them yourself. This seems to validate Haneke’s method for the first step — the understanding step — toward the viewer’s freedom. His method toward the second step — the action step — is legitimated by the further view that some experiences are so unique that going through them not only gives you knowledge of them but also puts you in an unprecedented position to make decisions that involve them, which you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to make. Philosopher L. A. Paul’s term for these phenomena is “transformative experiences.” Paul writes:
[An epistemically transformative] experience teaches [you] something [you] could not have learned without having that kind of experience. […] A personally transformative experience changes you in some deep and personally fundamental way, for example, […] by changing the way you understand your desires and the kind of person you take yourself to be.
Haneke’s films are, or aim to be, epistemically transformative experiences: experiences that will teach the viewer as much as possible about violence by submitting her to a similar, though of course not identical type of suffering as that endured by the characters on-screen. Call it suffering by empathy.
Here lies one of the differences between Haneke’s films and Carne y Arena. The format of the latter is not designed to make you suffer by empathy but in your own flesh. This gives González Iñárritu a far better shot at offering a personally transformative experience of violence than Haneke, or anyone else so far, has had. And it seems he gets close. One critic “felt a primal empathetic connection to the immigrants, and [he] also never felt more like a privileged white person who had never known an experience like this.” Another had, “for the first time, […] an inkling of what it must be like [to have a gun pointed at you].”
But there lies another, perhaps more important difference between Haneke’s films and Carne y Arena. In the former, the violence is mostly faceless and unpredictable; by contrast, the violence in Carne y Arena is traceable to political and economic causes with human faces and names, and so it can and should be prevented. In this spirit, one critic calls Carne y Arena “the harrowing Cannes VR installation that Donald Trump needs to see.” See, and feel.
It is probably not a coincidence that a team of Mexicans (including González Iñárritu’s cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki) are behind this harrowing innovation. We’re simply a nation too well acquainted with violence. Admittedly, though, González Iñárritu, Lubezki, and I are not, and could not be, acquainted with violence in the way many other Mexicans, including the people whose testimony inspired the film, are.
That is, perhaps, until now.
Doing some research in hopes of salvaging my childhood belief in the Mexican pioneer of color TV, I find various accounts arguing that Guillermo González Camarena’s system was indeed the first, but was not adopted in the United States because he rejected American funding to fine-tune it. Instead, he chose to work on a more affordable system for mass production at home, which, he was convinced, would revolutionize Mexican education. He made the first public broadcast with his new system on February 8, 1963. It was a children’s program.
Just like it must have been a unique experience for my oldest uncle to watch Paraíso Infantil in color for the first time that afternoon, Cannes’s official website describes Carne y Arena as “an experience which some are already comparing to that of the first ever spectators in the history of film.” Whether González Iñárritu’s latest work really constitutes a new audiovisual medium is, I think, an idle question. But whether he’ll achieve the transformative ambitions he shares with Haneke and — I’m just going to say it — the inventor of color TV is, quite literally, a matter of life or death. “The urgency is about people understanding that 60% or 65% of these people are kids or women running for their lives,” González Iñárritu has said. And elsewhere: “It’s like a Holocaust. That’s the reality.” If this strikes you as an exaggeration, you’re welcome to sign up for the queue to visit the piece in Los Angeles or at the Tlatelolco Museum in Mexico City later this summer.
You’re not going to like it. And you know that’s the point. But then — what are you going to decide to do about it?