Making Waves

10.07.09

Margot Benacerraf, Araya, 1959, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 82 minutes.


A STUNNING, STRANGELY LIMINAL MOVIE in form and content, Margot Benacerraf’s Araya (1959) takes its name from the place where it was shot—a Caribbean peninsula in northern Venezuela where for centuries a closed economy has been supported by the sea. Araya’s indigenous population makes its living either by gathering salt from the seemingly inexhaustible marshes or through fishing. The salt gatherers sell what they collect to exporters who arrive every day in cargo boats. They use the money to buy fish (fresh or salted) from the fisherman. Three generations of men, women, and children labor side by side. Almost no one from the fishing or the salt-gathering villages has ever left the peninsula. Once a week, they purchase water from a tanker truck that comes from inland. One woman makes pots—without the aid of a wheel. The soil is so arid and the sun so baking that only cacti and a few stunted trees survive. The trees are dry even before they are cut down for firewood.

In 1957, Benacerraf, a Venezuelan who had studied film at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématografiques in Paris and had made a short experimental documentary about the Venezuelan artist Reveron (which brought her to the attention of the legendary head of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois), returned to her home country to scout locations for what she thought would be a fiction film. She found Araya, and the feature she shot there shared the Critics Prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour. It was a moment of boundary-breaking filmmaking in France, but Araya defied categories to the extent that it never received theatrical distribution, although it has been programmed and won awards in various documentary retrospectives in the fifty years since its premiere. Benacerraf abandoned filmmaking after one or two aborted attempts to make another feature and, like two other radical female filmmakers before her—Germaine Dulac and Maya Deren—devoted her energies to creating an infrastructure for film distribution and preservation, founding Venezuela’s Cinemateca Nacional in 1966.

Araya is what is often termed a poetic documentary. It depicts the daily labors of the salt gatherers and fishermen in ethnographic detail, but it also employs expressive sound and image elements that exceed or violate the codes of documentary realism. Benacerraf combines audio recorded on location (the voices of the workers, the sound of the waves and of the salt being dredged and cut) with music that surges like the sea and is as harsh as the salt tearing the skin of the people who handle and walk on it. She also employs a voice-over narration (the film’s weakest element) that leans toward purple prose and poeticisms (which Benacerraf refers to as “biblical”), and interjects bits of fiction, which are not identified as such. The black-and-white cinematography by Giuseppe Nisoli captures the strange, pitiless beauty of the marshes, the salt pyramids, and the sea. The sound mix is extraordinarily rich. (The press kit describes how Benacerraf asked Raoul Coutard—Godard’s favorite cinematographer in the 1960s, then working as a sound-effects technician—to create “the sound of the earth as it expands from the heat of the sun.” He responded that the director editing in a nearby studio had just asked him “to produce the sound of a caress.” That director was Resnais and the film was Hiroshima mon amour.)

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Trailer for Margot Benacerraf’s, Araya, 1959.

Despite the dated voice-over prose and the questionable mini-fictions, Araya remains a powerful and suggestive hybrid. Its liminality is not merely a matter of a form located between documentary and fiction: Araya itself was, at the moment Benacerraf made her movie, in transition from primitive past to industrialized future, the derricks, cranes, and conveyor belts of which were only just arriving. Benacerraf shows the machinery but never speculates on how mechanization will affect people who’ve labored with their bodies and bare hands and need to work to survive. For anyone involved with documentary, Araya is necessary viewing. It would also make a great double bill with Harun Farocki’s elegant In Comparison (2009), which screened last week in the New York Film Festival’s “Views from the Avant-Garde” sidebar and which depicts brick making and bricklaying in some half-dozen societies.

Amy Taubin

Araya plays at the IFC Center in New York from October 7–20. For more details, click here. The film was restored by Milestone and will be available on DVD in the near future.