By Robin Pomeroy
CANNES, France (Reuters) - There's sand under your bare feet and a breeze on your face, but as a family rushes toward you through the desert gloom, you are suddenly a world away from the nearby beaches of Cannes.
This is "Carne y Arena", a virtual reality film that Oscar-winning director Alejandro Inarritu has brought to the Cannes Film Festival, immersing the viewer in the fear, chaos and violence experienced by migrants trying to cross to the United States from Mexico.
For the viewer -- and only one viewer at a time can enter -- it is startling to come face-to-face with people as they run for their lives.
The venue is not one of Cannes' plush movie theaters, but an aircraft hangar outside of town. After removing your shoes in an anteroom, an alarm sounds and you enter a vast, darkened room and put on a VR backpack and headset.
Immediately you are in the desert at night, first alone, and then among a group of men, women and children at they take a break from running through the desert. Approach them, crouch down next to them, and you can hear their conversations as a mother feeds her baby and a father tries to check the direction.
With an earth-trembling rumble, the quiet is broken by a helicopter that blinds you and your new companions with a spotlight. "Don't move -- show us your hands!" shout the guards.
At one point the scene changes, as if in a dream, and from nowhere a long table appears, with strange figures emerging from it - a man no bigger than your hand walks as if into a river, a toy-size boat overturns and its matchstick passengers fall out.
Actual (or virtually actual) men, meanwhile, are sat at the table playing games. Are they people traffickers indifferent to the fate of their human cargoes?
There's no time to find out, as suddenly border guards arrive again -- they are angrier and more violent than the others. And then you realize they are coming for you.
"No experience in Carne y Arena will ever be the same for any visitor," said Inarritu, who won the Best Director Oscar last year for the Leonardo DiCaprio adventure "The Revenant".
He spent four years on the VR project, which after Cannes will tour museums around the world.
"While both are audiovisual, VR is all that cinema is not, and vice versa; the frame is gone and the two-dimensional limits are dissolved," the Mexican director said in a note on the film.
After the film, which lasts an exhilarating seven minutes, you come face-to-face with the people from it once again.
In a video installation the real migrants -- who re-enacted their experiences for the film -- tell their individual stories.
It is virtual no longer. This is reality.
(Editing by Catherine Evans)