Margot Benacerraf, now in her 80s, only ever made one feature-length film, but that film remains so extraordinary, so very nearly singular, that it merits an admiration on par with many more prolific and esteemed bodies of work. After studying and gathering numerous influential allies in France and elsewhere, Benacerraf returned to her native Venezuela, specifically to an island no one had heard of, though when discovered by the Spanish 450 years earlier it was deemed a sort of paradise on account of its abundance of one resource: salt, as valuable back then as gold. We can see the ruins of colonial fortresses erected to protect the island and its salt marshes, once the center of piracy in the Caribbean, during the prologue of Araya (1959). But historical context quickly gives way to the seeming timelessness of hard labour, to Benacerraf’s lyrical approach to depicting the life of a community that was, at the time, so isolated as to resemble some primordial dream. Araya is now available on DVD from Milestone, the latest lost masterpiece resurrected by the same beloved company that re-released Killer of Sheep (1977) and The Exiles (1961).
Part ethnographic study, part homage to the workers of the developing world, part tone-poem with traces of artifice or subtle exaggeration lining its documentary foundations, Araya mainly recalls antecedents that can only be labeled documentaries in the vaguest sense: Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread (1933), the midpoint fishing sequence from Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950), or Agnès Varda’s La Pointe Courte (1955). Araya’s astounding images reveal a closed world formed of sand, sea, sun and salt, and not much else. Each of its inhabitants works in some capacity related to the salt industry. Long lines of shirtless men carry brimming baskets on their heads to add to immense pyramids of salt. Men break down mounds of salt with sticks in unison, women preserve fish in salt, children sift salt. The arrival of the water truck is a major event in this place where it never rains and there are no springs or lakes, where some of the older women’s faces are so dry with salt and sun that appear almost mummified. An especially memorable face belongs to a cigar-chomping old woman who walks into a cemetery with her granddaughter, where in lieu of flowers graves are adorned with shells. Araya’s narration (there are two voice-over tracks on Milestone’s disc, one Spanish, one French, both with English subtitles) strains to remind us that these people do nothing other than work, sleep and eat.
Nothing grows here; all life comes from the sea; life is work and work only: Araya’s narration conveys a number of immensely interesting facts, but it's also mercilessly repetitive, focuses on certain individuals without allowing them to reveal much in the way of individual personalities, and gradually becomes a major distraction. You begin to wonder if the narration is really needed at all. One could argue that it keeps you from paying as close attention as you might otherwise, that it stifles discovery. Surely the images and diegetic sounds, including those strange, haunting work songs, are more than enough to at once captivate and inform us, right up to the film’s elegantly portentous closing scenes, in which the island’s process of extraction, unchanged for centuries, is on the verge of massive change with the approach of modern industry. Let's be clear: Araya is a masterpiece. I urge you to see it. I just wish that Benacerraf’s incredible assembly of sights and sounds were allowed to speak for itself.