Film Review: Araya

Despite its age, <i>Araya </i>feels as current as ever.

Unjustly ignored for 50 years, Araya has finally found a distributor and (hopefully) an audience. This mesmerizing, highly textured film from director Margot Benacerraf will surely now attain its place in the pantheon of important ethnographic documentaries. With the correct handling by Milestone Film & Video, Araya’s box-office should be excellent at art houses and beyond.

Milestone’s loving restoration and re-release of this film, which is more cinematic poem than conventional documentary, follows the company’s similar work done on The Exiles (1961), another fascinating study of a culture (American Indian) in transition. This time, the focus is on Araya, a remote Caribbean peninsula that had been exploited for centuries by Spain for its abundance of salt marshes. After salt became a less coveted commodity, Araya became a forgotten land, but its natives continued to live and work, mainly harvesting salt to support themselves.

Araya looks at the people and the land (and sea) over a 24-hour period, mainly profiling three families: the Peredas (the night workers in the salt marshes), the Ortizes (the fishermen), and the Salazars (the salt harvesters). At the devastating climax, the workaday calm of these laborers is shattered by “progress” and modern industry, in the form of monster tractors and cranes taking over the manual jobs. What will happen to the people, Araya then asks. Will they be exploited all over again?

As the film begins, following a beautiful montage of Araya as seen from above the clouds, the earnest narrator (José Ignacio Cabrujas) intones, “On this land nothing grew,” a reference perhaps to Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes (1932). Yet, as Araya continues, it is clear that the Venezuelan-born Benacerraf wants to present something at once more traditional and factual than Buñuel’s deliberately cynical “anti-documentary,” but also less ethnocentric than the unintentionally condescending Nanook of the North, et al.

In form, especially Giuseppe Nisoli’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, as well as content, Araya seems much closer in spirit to Visconti’s La Terra Trema or those unfinished, potentially magnificent masterworks, Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico and the “Four Men on a Raft” episode in Welles’ It’s All True. Guy Bernard’s schizophrenic but haunting score alternates between riffing on Bernard Herrmann and utilizing the gentle melodies and rhythms of the people.

Margot Benacerraf may not be known for many other films, and, until now, not even this one. But she has created a significant and memorable work, which more than deserves to be revived and recognized.