“Araya” (1959) is not a documentary in the traditional sense, but then again neither is any other documentary. With its towering pyramids of salt stretching out diagonally towards the horizon, this stark black and white film has the feel of an avant-garde science-fiction opus, and its surreal location looks more like a carefully sculpted set than a “real” town.
In fact, “Araya” is carefully sculpted. But Araya (no quotation marks) is also a very real location. Situated on the northeastern coast of Venezuela, the Araya peninsula was discovered by Spanish conquistadors around 1500 and was immediately exploited for its vast salt marshes. Slave traders and pirates dueled with the Spanish crown for control of the region’s seemingly inexhaustible resources. A mere 450 years later, very little has changed in Araya, but it’s about to.
At least that is the conceit of writer-director Margot Benacerraf who is clearly dazzled by the rituals of Araya laborers. Their streamlined routinization is a phenomenon as natural and unchanging as the ocean tides that bring the salt close to land in the first place. Men on rickety boats plunge their hands into the ocean and rip out huge chunks of salt. The next in line chop it up with machetes or sticks and hand it off to be hauled inland. Baked by a baleful sun, backs bending under the burden of 140 pound baskets, workers snake their way up enormous pyramids of salt. At the top they dump the contents, queue up for a token to measure their labor, and return for the next load. Repeat twenty times a day for the next four or five centuries.
Benacerraf styles the film as a day in the life of the workers (as well as the women who hawk fish and tend home) and style is the operative term. Her “day” was filmed over three weeks and was planned out for nearly a year before. Though “Araya” superficially resembles a documentary, Benacerraf scripted and rehearsed everything, sometimes asking her non-professional actors to perform twenty takes to achieve the right effect. Though all of the actors are indigenous villagers, some play invented characters and makeshift families that suited Benacerraf’s story. She envisioned “Araya” as a “tone poem” rather than an actuality film, and it is certainly a poetic achievement.
Along with cinematographer Giuseppe Nisoli as the only other member of her two person production crew, Benacerraf renders the desolate landscape of Araya into a portrait of surpassing beauty, with salt pyramids lined up in perfect diagonals and tiny silhouetted figures wending their way across these vast white shapes, all while constantly reminding us of the implacable presence of the eternal sea and sun. The narration, co-written by Pierre Seghers, molds the (hi)story of Araya into a creation myth with life (and salt) emerging from the sea and clinging desperately to a land that is ill-equipped to support it. Like most mythologies, it also warns of its own final days which manifests here as a literal explosion when modern machinery threatens/promises to end this seemingly anachronistic way of life.
Ethnography is an ethical minefield and critics are often quick to accuse filmmakers of the ultimate sin of aestheticizing poverty – witness the dissenting minority on Pedro Costa as a recent example. Benacerraf certainly walks a fine line, and it’s fair to ask why she felt her and Seghers’ words were so much more important than those of the hard-working people of Araya who are not allowed to speak except in the direct performance of their duties. But her meticulous attention to the minutiae of labor and to the weather-worn faces of her actors prevents “Araya” from becoming too much of a poetic abstraction. The images, beautiful as they are, are too sweat-soaked, too leathery, and too concrete to be dismissed as mere aesthetic objects, as just pretty things to be contemplated. Even in this “tone poem,” these images are documents of a people never before (and never since?) represented on film. We are left to trust that Benacerraf’s sympathetic interpretation (and her liberal use of invention) is true to the spirit of the people of Araya but, then again, that’s always the case with documentary (or sort-of documentary) film no matter how transparently verité it might strive to be.
“Araya” was quite a success on its release, sharing a major award with Alain Resnais’ “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” at what is arguably the most pivotal year in the history of the Cannes Film Festival, 1959, the year which saw the unofficial birth of the French New Wave (Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” also won an award). Benacerraf’s career, however, did not take off along with the Cahiers crowd’s, and she did not shoot another feature film.
“Araya” has not been entirely forgotten(we are told in the extras that it remains a landmark in Venezuela), but it has been seldom seen by most audiences before the great soldiers of cinema at Milestone stepped in to restore and re-release “Araya” in theaters in 2009, and now on DVD. It is very much of a piece with their recent heroic efforts on “Killer of Sheep” and “The Exiles” and if it is not quite as brilliant as those masterpieces, it is the most seductive audiovisual achievement of the group. While there may be valid concerns about representation, there can be no doubt that “Araya” is a truly beautiful film, and an object lesson for critics who lazily apply the words “stunning visuals” to garish CGI spectacles like “Thor” and “2012.” This is beauty of the ineffable kind, not drab digital detritus.
I had to repeatedly remind myself that I was not watching a Blu-Ray. That’s how crystalline pure this image is. I did not see “Araya” when it was released in theaters in 2009, but obviously Milestone’s restoration was thorough and their digital transfer from that source print is as close to perfection as SD can get. Did I mention that I kept mistaking this for a high def image? Perhaps some of that is from my Blu-Ray player’s upscaling, but holy cow does this image have depth to it – you can almost walk into the picture. The black-and-white photography uses a lot of sharp contrast and that comes out in spades on this restoration. There are a few flecks of damage visible from time to time, but buffing them out would likely have rendered the image a little too polished. This is one of the best SD transfers I have ever seen. I cannot, off-hand, think of one that is superior.
The film is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Viewers can choose to listen to Spanish narration or French narration. Benacerraf’s sound design is rather complex and I haven’t had time to write about it. Likewise, the score by Guy Bernard (lots of synthesizer which enforces the sci-fi feel, esp in the opening scenes) is a major part of the film. It’s not extremely dynamic, but it has a decent amount of depth to it, and I felt that Bernard’s score in the earliest parts of the film establish an appropriately weird mood. Optional English subtitles are offered for both audio options.
Milestone doesn’t take on many projects each year, but they always make up in terms of quality. Though Benacerraf did not disappear completely from the film scene, she did not make another film after “Araya” and there is not exactly a surplus of material available about her. Nonetheless, Milestone has managed to pack in a good amount of material.
Best of all is the film “Reveron,” Benacerraf’s 1953 short film (23 min.) about the Venezuelan artist Armando Julio Reveron. Like “Araya” this is a poetic film which plays even more with multi-layered sound for various (sometimes heavy-handed effects.) As an artsy film about an artist, it feels a bit precious, but it’s beautiful and gives viewers access to Benacerraf’s only other work. Reveron died in 1954.
Both “Araya” and “Reveron” are accompanied by commentary tracks in which Benacerraf is interview by Milestone’s Dennis Doros. The director has plenty to say 50 years after her film was made, and this is well worth listening to in its entirety. I haven’t listened to the commentary on “Reveron” yet.
“The Film of Her Life” (16 min, dir. Antoine Mora) sees Benacerraf returning to Araya approximately 50 years later. It’s interesting to get a look not only at the changes in Araya, but also to see Araya in color. Benacerraf tracks down some of the people (or their relatives) in her film. She emphasizes that her film is poetry before it is documentary (though the two are hardly exclusive).
There are also two interviews with the director: “Margot Benacerraf: más allá de Araya” (1996, 23 min.) and “Moving Paintings” (2001, 10 min.) The combined interviews cover both “Araya” and “Reveron.”
Milestone’s trailer for the 2009 re-release of “Araya” (2 min.) is also included, along with DVD-Rom files, including the film’s press kit and information from the director’s personal records. I have not had the chance to sample these yet.
Perhaps if Margot Benacerraf had been based in Paris (where she studied film) instead of Venezuela, “Araya” would already be a familiar cinematic touchstone. If things had broken slightly differently, she might have been known as Venezuela’s Agnes Varda. Instead, “Araya” is a glittering anomaly, not lost, but rarely seen, and Milestone has done a remarkable job in restoring the film to pristine condition as well as providing a passel of extras that serve as a testament to Benacerraf’s career. This SD transfer outclasses plenty of 1080p efforts, and there’s little doubt that “Araya” is one of the best and most important DVD releases of 2011. Highly recommended.