CANNES, France, May 20, (Agencies): A helicopter whirs overhead and police take aim from the shadows. You must choose in an instant to join the terrified migrants hiding in the desert or the ones running for their lives.
Mexican Oscar-winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has brought a harrowing virtual reality experience set on the US-Mexican border to the Cannes Film Festival, where the plight of the world’s migrants is in the spotlight.
The six-minute immersive experience is called “Carne y arena” (Flesh and Sand).
As sirens wail, each live participant — barefoot in sand and wearing VR goggles — experiences the scene alone, joined only by a small band of virtual people hoping to reach America — men, women, children.
One screams out in pain and a tragedy looms, but Inarritu mercifully stops short of the worst.
“During the past four years in which this project has been growing in my mind, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing many Mexican and Central American refugees,” the maker of “Birdman” and “The Revenant” said.
“Their life stories haunted me, so I invited some of them to collaborate with me in the project.”
“Carne y arena” is screening at an airport just outside Cannes but back in the sun-kissed Mediterranean resort town, the refugee issue is also inescapable.
Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo, who stunned Cannes with his Hitchcockian political allegory “White …” in 2014, is in the running for this year’s Palme d’Or top prize with “Jupiter’s Moon”.
The supernatural thriller tells the story of Syrian refugee Aryan who, after being shot several times by a policeman at the border, can levitate at will.
When a terrorist plot emerges to bomb the Budapest metro, Aryan gets caught up in a police dragnet as authorities assume the culprits must be migrants.
Mundruczo admitted the film takes a tough “politically incorrect” look at Hungary’s hardline refugee policy, without letting the rest of Europe off the hook.
“My problem is your problem as well if you are European,” he said.
“Of course Hungary is an example, and from one perspective, is a bad example. But it can be easily everywhere, so what is our responsibility? What is our answer to (what) is happening over there?”
More than 400,000 migrants passed through Hungary in 2015 before a highly fortified border fence was built and a deal between the European Union and Turkey and other measures dramatically slowed the influx.
Also screening in Cannes is a passion project by veteran British actress Vanessa Redgrave, a long-time activist making her directorial debut at 80.
Her documentary “Sea Sorrow” features shots of migrants living in Italy and the now-dismantled Jungle camp in Calais, northern France, interspersed with readings by Ralph Fiennes and Emma Thompson about the human plight of those fleeing war and misery dating back as far as the 17th century.
Redgrave drew on her decades performing William Shakespeare’s plays for the film, which takes its own name from “The Tempest”.
And one of the most keenly awaited contenders at the festival that is still to come — “Happy End” by two-time Palme d’Or winner Michael Haneke — looks at a middle-class family living in Calais who are oblivious to the suffering around them.
The Cannes Film Festival runs until May 28.
You walk along a high metal fence that once divided Arizona and Mexico and into a small holding cell where you are asked to take off your shoes and socks. All around you are the abandoned shoes of migrants who have been arrested by the border patrol. When a red light flashes, you enter a large chamber with a sand floor. A ragged band of migrants crossing an expansive desert swarms around you.
For a moment, in the dusty twilight, you join their flight.
This is part of Alejandro Inarritu’s “Carne y Arena” (Virtually present, Physically invisible),” a visual art installation debuting this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s the festival’s first virtual reality film to be an official entry.
The artwork seeks to capture migrants’ experiences crossing the US-Mexico border. It’s centered around a seven-minute virtual reality experience via a headset — taking “Carne y Arena” outside of traditional cinema into an emotional journey.
The storm over whether Netflix films should be shown at the Cannes Film Festival has been billed as a generational clash that calls into question the future of cinema.
That the US streaming giant’s movie “Okja” was greeted both by booing and cheering at its premiere Friday showed how divided filmmakers are about the new cash-rich kid on the Hollywood block.
On one side are traditionalists who want to preserve the “immersive experience” of seeing movies on the big screen, and on the other, young millennials who have enthusiastically embraced streaming.
While critics adored “Okja”, an adventure story of a girl who tries to rescue a giant genetically-modified pig from its ruthless creators, Variety said it really “belonged on the big screen” while The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw said “it’s a terrible waste to shrink them to an iPad”.
Before a single movie had been shown, the head of the Cannes jury, Pedro Almodovar, declared that “he could not imagine” either “Okja” or the other Netflix film “The Meyerowitz Stories” winning anything.
“For as long as I live I will fight to safeguard the hypnotic power of the big screen,” he told reporters.
While Almodovar backtracked Friday, promising scrupulous fairness, there was no hiding his irritation at Netflix’s refusal to take their two films in the running for the top prize, the Palme d’Or, to French cinemas.
Netflix claims “the establishment is closing ranks against us” and its supporters rail against French rules which prevent it from streaming films until three years after they are released in cinemas there.
Hollywood stars at Cannes jumped to Netflix’s defence, with Will Smith — who sits on the jury with Almodovar — warning he would “slam my hand on the table and disagree with Pedro. I’m looking forward to a good jury scandal.”
He insisted Netflix has opened up young people to independent films, saying: “In my house Netflix has been nothing but an absolute benefit because my children get to watch films they never would have seen.”
That view was confirmed by two young American Netflix fans at Cannes, who told AFP that it hadn’t dimmed their love for the big screen.