AURORA | A harrowing trek across scorching deserts without water or food — or even shoes for some — will typically land an immigrant or refugee crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in las hieleras (“the freezers”), frigid holding cells at immigration detention facilities along the southern border.
A rendition of the cells is the first stop for viewers of “CARNE y ARENA,” (“Flesh and Sand”) the groundbreaking virtual reality solo experience from Oscar-winning Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu showing at Stanley Marketplace in Aurora for the next three months.
In all, the experience takes about 20 minutes. First, you’re told to enter a room, take off your shoes and socks and put them in a locker. Then, you wait for an alarm to signal you into the next room. Shoes, some which obviously belonged to small children, are scattered around the floor. They were collected along the border. The room is cold and bright.
When the alarm sounds, you enter the next room. You’re outfitted with a virtual reality headset, backpack and ear phones. Suddenly you’re transported into a desert, which is quiet at first. Then you hear and feel the helicopters above and spot migrants running toward you. It’s hard to move out of the way quickly without shoes or socks on. The sand is coarse. The scene quickly becomes chaotic. Border agents, spotlights, sirens, guns, dogs.
There are no actors. After finishing the VR experience, you’ll put on your socks and shoes and meet all of the people who inspired the film via vignettes that resemble a face-to-face conversation. Some of the people were just little kids when they attempted the crossing, some paid coyotes, nearly all were running from gang violence in Latin America.
“During the making of this project, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing many Mexican and Central American refugees,” Iñárritu says of the experience. “Their life stories haunted me, so I invited some of them to collaborate with me on the project. My intention was to experiment with VR technology to explore the human condition in an attempt to break the dictatorship of the frame—within which things are just observed—and claim the space to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts.”
“CARNE y ARENA” debuted in an airplane hangar at the Festival de Cannes in 2017.
The immigrants’ stories in the VR experience are not unlike many in the immigration detention center privately-owned by GEO Group just 2.5 miles away, on the other side of the Central Park neighborhood.
The proximity isn’t lost on Congressman Jason Crow, who attended the experience last week.
It was his second time doing the experience. The first was two years ago in Washington, D.C. “CARNE y ARENA” has played all over the world, in Mexico City, Milan and Los Angeles, too.
It was just as moving as the first time, he said.
“What’s so powerful is that so much of the debate around immigration and border security has been a very sterile debate. It’s been about numbers, about metrics, about policy,” Crow said. “And what’s amazing about this, I think, is the people behind it. People are impacted and this humanizes the debate and the policy discussion about the real human impact and cost of what’s happening,” Crow said.
The freshman Congressman, who’s facing re-election this year against Republican Steve House, knows that debate well. He’s made transparency in the local immigration prison a top priority during his first two years in Congress. Each week either Crow or one of his staffers performs a check-in at the facility, asking about living conditions, disease outbreak, even what’s on the menu. The accountability reports, as Crow calls them, are a bridge between the detention center and the outside world. Without them, it’s extremely difficult to get information about what’s happening inside the facility.
Most of the detainees are awaiting hearings about whether they will be sent back to their home country or they’ll be allowed to stay.
“I think some folks lose sight of the fact that for most of the recent history of the GEO facility, the vast majority of the people that are being detained there are asylum seekers. These are folks that actually walked this very journey and experienced what we just experienced to try to seek a better life with their families, and under U.S. law, presented themselves for asylum at the border. And they’re being locked up and treated like prisoners. That’s something I think we all have to come to terms with,” Crow said. “What’s great about this exhibit is it takes people out of their comfort zone and to actually think about this in a deeper way.”
“CARNE y ARENA” gives viewers a peek into the entire experience of a border crossing, from hobbling through a desert with no shoes to waiting in the freezers, which some migrants say is the most painful part of the journey.
For Crow, sitting in las hieleras is a reminder of a harsh system that many agree requires reform.
“I think our policies obviously are designed to achieve certain outcomes, but the manner in which we pursue policies should reflect our humanity and our values,” he said. “And especially in the last couple of years, there are multiple examples of policies that just exhibit shear inhumanity.”