With a grain of salt
Margot Benacerraf's Araya premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959, where it shared the Fipresci Critics' Prize with Alan Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour. Resnais' film went on to be an art house classic, while Benacerraf's documentary has gone largely unseen, except for a few film festivals devoted to Latin American cinema. Thanks to Milestone Films, the picture has its best chance yet of being seen by a wider audience, in this beautiful restored print, now on DVD.
The film's story is simple to the point of being nonexistent: basically twenty-four hours in the life of three families on the peninsula of Araya, on northeastern Venezuela. Salt is manually collected and stack in mounds the size and height of small hills; the work is brutal, and the salt so corrosive it causes skin ulcerations. Modern mining technology is in the process of being installed (remember, this is 1959), so this ancient way of saltmaking--started almost half a millennium before, when salt was once worth its weight in gold--is on its way out.
The opening image is dramatic: shots of clouds unfurling across the sky. Then a kind of reverse shot: the camera from high up (clouds' point of view), looking down at the bleak, buckled landscape, deep erosions, huge rocks rearing up high, spiky cactus paddles sprouting crookedly over the parched earth. You can see that Benacerraf has an eye: the rock cracks stretch diagonally across the screen, while the cactus paddles reach out spiny crooked fingers at you. One sits in keen anticipation of another Mikhail Kalatzov's Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba, 1964), that beautifully shot piece of Soviet propaganda that also went largely unseen till Martin Scorsese campaigned to have it restored in the 1990s. Araya shares some of that visual gorgeousness, though more on the spare side--no camera winding through a crowd of decadent partygoers, climbing down several stories to ease its way into the swimming pool; no camera rising up the height of a building to follow a fallen comrade, hovering high over dead body for several blocks.
The photography in Araya is not so recklessly spectacular, though it has its own uncivilized beauty. It also shares with Soy Cuba a tendency to push stereotypes and melodrama to embarrassing heights, in this case though the use of a voice-over narration that at times sounds like an Earth Day Amateur Poets' Night and at other times like an old-fashioned Sunday Bible sermon. Benacerraf is quoted as saying this was never intended to be a documentary; it's even obvious that some of the scenes are staged (much in the manner of Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934)). But really--the verbal poetry poorly serves the visual poetry, which is often more than enough, and would have benefited from a little more sense of mystery (a little more silence, in effect).
I'm not thinking so much of modern documentaries (where people onscreen provide most of the commentary) so much as I'm thinking of the first third of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kubrick had a large outpouring of scientifically accurate narration explain the context in which man's evolution was to take place--then had second thoughts: the narration reduced the sequence to the level of mere documentary, when he was striving for something more, the cinematic equivalent of Homer's The Odyssey (an ambition made nakedly obvious by the film's title). Benacerraf probably wanted a similar effect, unfortunately decided on a different approach.
The film has also been compared to Luchino Visconti's La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948), which is a clear influence--you see the combination of documentarylike beauty and cripplingly obvious narration. A more useful model, I submit, would have been Alan Resnais's Nuit et broillard (Night and Fog, 1955), where the narration doesn't mickymouse the imagery, doesn't deliver overwrought poetry (but who knows, we are only familiar with the English translation of Benacerraf's film), instead draws metaphors, makes connections, measures the meaning of the Holocaust against a greater context, against history's grand pageant. The film essay unfolds with becoming modesty as it admits to the impossibility of taking it all in, judging it all--and all this in a mere forty minutes! A similar narration might have helped Benacerraf's film immeasurably.
A final point of comparison: Nana Buxhani and Ditsy Carolino's Minsan Lang Sila Bata (Children Only Once), the Filipino filmmakers' fairy-tale like documentary on provincial child labor. Buxhani and Carolino's spare poetry probably descended from Benacerraf's film, and to some extent their documentary is also handicapped by a too-obvious narration. As with Benacerraf's film, the power is all in the imagery; it's up to you to decide if said imagery suffices to overcome the weaknesses. I think they do--for Buxhani and Carolino and, happily, for Benacerraf herself.
First published in Businessworld, 7.14.11