World

Can art recreate a migrant's border trauma? This simulation might come close

As the White House considers how to crack down on illegal border crossings, a virtual-reality project in Washington, D.C., that simulates the panic and despair of a migrant's journey has become a hit. The Oscar-winning project by Alejandro Inarritu has been booked solid since March.

Alejandro Inarritu's 6-minute VR narrative is the 'hottest ticket' in D.C.

A visitor equipped with a backpack and an Oculus Rift wanders a sand-strewn space while experiencing Carne y Arena, the popular virtual-reality exhibit in Washington, D.C. (Emmanuel Lubezki)

Migrants caught fleeing to the U.S. border have a term in Spanish for the holding cells where detainees often wait days to be processed. They call them las hieleras, or the freezers, and it quickly becomes apparent why.

Even before the virtual-reality experience begins in the adjoining room, your bare feet feel the bite of cold concrete. The antechamber replicates the short-term detention pens used by U.S. Border Patrol.

Inside, instructions on the wall direct you to remove your shoes and socks. Ignore the orders and a voice crackling over a P.A. system restates the command.

A camera watches from the corner. Fluorescent lights buzz. Items belonging to actual migrants who tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border litter the floor. Beneath the metal benches lining the walls are water jugs, a grimy canvas sack and a child's sneaker inscribed Princess.

Selena, a mother from Guatemala, has her image digitally recreated for the installation. It is based on accounts of real migrants who crossed the southern border of the U.S. in search of better lives. (Chachi Ramirez)

The waiting area is an affecting preparation for ticket holders who booked coveted slots for Carne y Arena (Flesh and Sand), the Oscar-winning virtual-reality art installation by the acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Inarritu, director of The Revenant and Birdman.

Washington, D.C., is the third North American city, after Los Angeles and Mexico City, to host the exhibit. It debuted at last year's Cannes Film Festival, where invitees were shuttled to an airport hangar filled with sand, fitted with an Oculus Rift VR headset and immersed in a virtual scrubland somewhere near the dusty border. 

Journey with a smuggler

Carne y Arena harnesses the Oculus system, headphones and convincing motion effects to mimic the miseries that migrants face on their journey with a coyote, or smuggler. The exhibit, running to the end of August, took over a church, wrapping it in the steel that comprises U.S.-Mexico border fencing. The interior was blanketed with gravel to approximate the Arizona desert.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent examines a holding cell for illegal immigrants at the Tucson Sector U.S. Border Patrol Headquarters in Tucson, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

The main VR feature begins with crickets chirping as faint voices in Spanish approach from the west. It's a gripping six-and-a-half minutes.

When a helicopter roars above, the sand shakes beneath your toes. When the chopper blazes a searchlight  at your party, it's blinding to look up. You hear a child crying.

Gun-toting immigration agents shout in a mix of English and Spanish. Their walkie-talkies squawk around you as the agents survey your party, trying to calm a four-year-old boy, helping an elderly woman limp to the patrol truck, and searching for a smuggler in your group.

"Hands out of your pockets!" one agent barks.

"Why do you speak such good English?" another asks an undocumented lawyer.

Inarritu's installation, based on stories of actual refugees from Central America and Mexico and border agents, aims to bring to life a fragment of the migrant experience — to go "under their skin, and into their hearts."

"Their life stories haunted me," Inarritu says in statement. "So I invited some of them to collaborate with me on the project."

A baker from El Salvador, left, and filmmaker Alejandro Inarritu work during a motion-capture shoot for the exhibit. (Chachi Ramirez)

They're the same migrants you meet on your simulated journey. You encounter them again, after the VR experience, when you enter another room to stand eye-to-eye with their portraits and learn their fates.

Legislators in the U.S. capital have already experienced the installation, though nobody from the executive branch is known to have requested passes. The exhibit allows 46 visitors in a 12-hour day.

Time slots are free, but hard to come by. Since it debuted in March, Carne y Arena has been booked solid to mid-June. Online passes usually go in under two minutes. The Washington Post called it the "hottest ticket in town."

But it's not entertainment. Nor is it cinema, according to its director.

The facility for Carne y Arena is a former church that has been surrounded by steel used for border wall fencing. The exhibit has been shown in Los Angeles and Mexico City, and debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last May. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

"Cinema is frame, cinema is length of the lens, cinema is editing, the position of images that create time and space," Inarritu says. "Virtual reality, even when it's visual, is exactly all what cinema is not."

Its showing comes amid President Donald Trump's push to crack down on illegal border crossings and as legislators seek a way to protect people from deportation if they were brought over illegally as children.

The Border Patrol reported 341,084 apprehensions on the southwest border in 2017. The International Organization for Migration reported 412 migrant deaths last year, up from 398 a year earlier.

'Seeing their heartbeat'

Inarritu says Carne y Arena is about sharing the human condition. When a pair of migrants during the VR experience drop to the ground and cradle each other, Joyce Kazadi, a participant who booked tickets last month, said she knelt with them.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent leads journalists on a tour through the Pena Blanca Canyon in Arizona, close to the Mexican border, in this 2013 file photo. (Samantha Sais/Reuters)

"I walked up to the people, peered into their faces, tried to touch them," she said.

Kazadi reached out and was surprised to be suddenly cocooned in the thudding of one person's racing heartbeat. Her perspective snapped back to the desert environment when she physically pulled away.

"You're hearing their heartbeat, seeing their heartbeat, and I think the point is, it's trying to humanize people so they're not just stats," she said.

If a Border Patrol agent walks through a VR participant, you are again transported into his beating heart. It could be an attempt to humanize the agents who feel duty-bound to enforce border policy. One dreamy scene allows participants to eavesdrop on agents gazing at the stars and marvelling at the constellations.

Antonia Silva, a Washington-area blogger who writes about immigration experiences, said he was nearly brought to tears after experiencing the simulation. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

Every visitor experiences the exhibit in their own way. Kazadi says she got "scraped up" obeying orders to lie in the sand.

Others, like Antonio Silva, who blogs about immigration issues, defy the patrolmen and act more like omniscient observers.

"I just stood there," he said. "Like a ghost."

That is, until it became a little too real toward the end, when a border agent turned his attention directly to Silva and ordered him at gunpoint to get on the ground.

"I thought there was a character behind me, playing tough," he said. "But it was me. He was approaching me. I pointed at my chest — 'Like, me?'"

A view of the Nogales, Ariz., side of the U.S.-Mexico border is shown in February 2017. (Jason Burles/CBC)

During her turn, Jennifer Awad, a Canadian art therapist, froze in the same moment.

"I was like, is he pointing at me? Is there a person behind me?"

The scene ends there. Carne y Arena concludes with wind rustling through early-morning desolation. It's implied that hours have passed. A child's knapsack lies in the sand. The spectator is left to absorb the emptiness alone.

Silva was nearly brought to tears when he removed his VR headset.

"When you see the aftermath — a Hello Kitty backpack on the ground, a plastic bag blowing in the wind — I was really moved."

Ticket holders acknowledge most Carne y Arena visitors will come from positions of privilege where they're able to enter marginalized bodies temporarily. Awad has no illusions about how close this brings her to an actual migrant's trauma. Following the VR, for example, a box of wipes was set out for participants to clean their feet.

"To me, being able to pick up my shoes and wipe my feet afterwards, that's like this is the end of this. It resets you," she said.

"But this happens to real people. Anything that honours their experience is amazing."

The crew for Academy Award-winning Carne y Arena films a re-enactment of a scene in the desert. (Chachi Ramirez)

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.