VR experience at Cannes puts you with migrants crossing border

Europeans get a daily dose of news these days about refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere washing up on their shores and crossing borders, seeking safety from the carnage back home. And the 70th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival in France is tackling the issue in a various ways, from British actress/director Vanessa Redgrave’s documentary “Sea Sorrow” to Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo’s fantastical “Jupiter’s Moon.”

Redgrave lays out the reasons why she thinks European nations should extend a helping hand to Mideast refugees, particularly children, citing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which was made after the horrors of the Holocaust. Mundruczo’s film, meanwhile, turns a refugee on the Hungarian border into what some Cannes wags are calling a “refu-Jesus.” A young man is shot by immigration authorities at the Hungarian border but is resurrected as someone who can levitate — or fly. (He was crossing the river into Hungary with his dad, who was a carpenter, before being shot. And the crossing and confrontation with authorities is the best part of the film.)

But the biggest event this year in Cannes about immigration and refugees isn’t even a film: It’s a virtual reality installation by Oscar-winning filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu, titled “Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible).”

About 1,000 people in Cannes are being allowed to experience the installation before it moves on to a show in Milan. And it has everyone on the Croisette chatting about it, some in very positive tones and others in uneasy wariness.

Here’s the setup: Journalists who are participating are told to sign up for a specific time and to allot about 1 1/2 hours to participate in the event, which is held about 20 minutes from downtown Cannes in a hangar at a small airport for private jets of the rich and famous. A driver will take people to and from the event, two people at a time.

Once there, you sign a waiver saying, basically, that you won’t sue anyone. A sign on the wall tells you the background of the installation, with Iñárritu telling how he met with immigrants and refugees over many months and heard their stories about crossing the border into the U.S. Most of the people say they were fleeing violence in their home countries, primarily Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Iñárritu explains how he has incorporated these stories in the experience you’re about to have.

You realize upfront that there’s an agenda: To make you feel empathy for these refugees, to take you into their hearts and minds. The poster for the experience, in fact, features a red heart with a dotted line splitting the heart in half — on one side the “U.S.” and on the other side “T.H.E.M.”

Then you hand over your possessions to an attendant and enter a room alone. There, you’re told to take off your socks and shoes, place them in a locker and leave when the alarm sounds.

The next room has a floor covered in sand. You walk to a couple of attendants who put your head in virtual reality gear, and then the show begins. Or, rather, the nightmare.

You’re on the border, alone in the desert, and you slowly see people approaching you. They’re migrants, being led on a journey across the border. They’re old and young. Some are injured and tired. Most are scared of what lies ahead. You can’t make conversation with them, but you can go up to them, and if you get close enough, you can see their hearts beating.

Then the helicopters come, with lights blazing and noises roaring, and agents emerge telling you to get down on the ground. Some refugees flee but are fired upon. Others try to hide. It’s disorienting. And it’s disheartening to see several children in this horrible situation.

Various other events unfold, depending on your response to the stimuli, and you’re eventually confronted with a border agent who points a gun at you and orders you to drop to the ground.

Once the virtual reality experience ends, you enter another part of the installation, where you see real-life videos of the people you’ve been with, and they tell their stories of hardship and why they chose to make the journey to the U.S. Many lament that they’re considered criminals or bad people by some in the U.S. Others express hope for the future and that they’ll be able to become citizens.

It’s a curious experiment in empathy. But it’s not at all clear that the overall installation is successful. Any white American journalist who has been delivered via limousine to a state-of-the-art virtual reality experience on the French Riviera needs to acknowledge that he or she has been a type of voyeur, secure and well aware that safety really isn’t an issue — that luxury awaits within a half-hour. And that dilutes the emotional impact of what’s happening to those around you in virtual reality.

Oddly, the most affecting part of the overall installation comes when you’re sitting in the room before the virtual reality experience. There are shoes and articles of clothing that have been left behind on the Arizona/Mexico border, many belonging to people who have died on their journey. And over to one side is a little boy’s tattered cowboy boot. You wonder what happened to him. And if you don’t feel some type of guilt and sorrow, then you might as well not proceed.

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