Craneway VR experience illuminates harrowing border crossings

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Carne y Arena a powerful firsthand glimpse at Mexico-U.S. border crossing
All photos by Kathy Chouteau

By Kathy Chouteau

Locals interested in immersing themselves in a singularly powerful human experience should prioritize a visit to the Carne y Arena virtual reality experience at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond.

Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu and available at the Craneway through the end of January 2023, Carne y Arena is a 30 minute, Academy Award-winning virtual reality experience that gives participants an emotionally charged glimpse into refugees’ true-life personal passages toward a better life across the Mexico/U.S. border.

The experience for the visitor is both visual and visceral, as they remove their shoes and step into those of another with a powerful story to tell. Donning VR headsets, visitors start off by finding themselves barefoot and alone in a sandy nighttime desert. Soon, the quiet serenity of the starry night and desert environs is gently interrupted by the approaching sound of humans. The visitor is slowly surrounded by a group of multigenerational refugees—some tiny children—gathering for a moment of rest amid their weary journey.

The moment is short-lived as the jarring sound of a helicopter hovering overhead interrupts the refugees’ respite. U.S. Border Patrol vehicles arrive in short order and loudly disrupt the gathering with frightful shouting, waving guns and the division of males and females into different groups.

Just as suddenly as this intimate look into the refugees’ journey began, it abruptly ends, leaving visitors to wonder…Is everyone ok? What happens next?  As the VR aspect of the experience is left behind, visitors soon learn the answers to these questions via illuminated photos and bios of these real-life Mexican and Central American refugees (who recreated their experiences for the film) lining a hallway preceding the exit. Seeing their faces up close and learning about their lives post-U.S. Border Patrol encounter underscores the overriding message that they aren’t actors—they’re real people with a heart wrenching story to share about the stark reality of a border crossing.

Everyone should see it. Carne y Arena is an experience that resonates far beyond border politics.

The Craneway Pavilion is located at 1414 Harbour Way South in Richmond, with the Carne y Arena virtual reality experience offered through the end of January. Tickets are $39 for those age 16 and over and $35.10 for students age 15 and over (ID required). Visitors must be 15 or older to engage in the experience. For more info, including to purchase tickets and to view available dates/times, click here.