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Carne y Arena puts you in VR shoes of scared fleeing immigrants

Carne y Arena, from Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Academy-Award winning filmmaker behind The Revenant, is mesmerizing audiences.

Video screenshot by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper/CNET

The immigrant experience of trying to escape to the United States has perhaps never been more in the news than amid the current debate over families being separated at the border. But for most, the emotions, sights and sounds of the immigrant experience are just words on paper. 

The virtual-reality experience Carne y Arena ("Flesh and Sand") aims to change that. 

Viewers of the experience now running in Washington D.C. begin in a sort of holding cell, CityLab reports, where they must take off their shoes and socks and wait for instructions. Then it's on to a sand-filled space where the virtual-reality headset puts them in the Chihuahuan Desert along with a group of migrants who are apprehended by US border-patrol authorities.

"There's a point when the officers turn their guns on the viewer and begin shouting orders at the migrants," wrote CityLab reviewer Kriston Capps. "It is not a scene for the faint of heart or easily traumatized. I felt pushed to run but instead froze in place, aware that I was not following their orders to get down on the ground. Further down the brain stem, more dimly, and maybe only after the fact, it occurred to me that these weren't real orders, or real officers."

Only one person can go through the VR experience at a time, and the event lasts six and a half minutes.

The piece was created by Academy Award-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (The Revenant, Birdman) and first presented at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. In 2017, it won an Oscar of its own, taking home the first special achievement Academy Award given out in 20 years.

Iñárritu noted that the experience isn't like a typical Hollywood movie, with backstory and character development, but that's OK. "I think this medium deserves to find its own language," he told told the Washington Post.

Tickets are free, but they must be reserved online in advance, and the experience is popular: Tickets are released in allotments, with those for July 1-14 going on sale online at 5 a.m. PT on July 1.

This isn't the first virtual-reality experience to take on social issues. Perspectives: Chapter 2 -- The Misdemeanor, which debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, puts viewers in the shoes of two young men stopped by New York police officers in an incident that quickly goes bad. And the 2015 VR experience Clouds Over Sidra, shot in partnership with the United Nations, focuses on one young Syrian refugee's life in a refugee camp in Jordan.

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