1950s

A Film Arising from the Sea and the Sand: ‘Araya’ at Cinema Rediscovered

Film, we often forget, is as reliant on infrastructure as it is on creativity and artistry. No other art form requires such a large collective of people behind the camera simply engaged in the process of making sure the movie is completed. Hence, the finished work is as much an extension of the reality of film infrastructure as it is a work of artistic consideration. It is why Hollywood remains such a powerful influence, because its infrastructure exists. It is why, for example, French cinema retains such an outsized influence on world cinephilia — because French cinema has often had a sizable infrastructure, backed up by generous state funding. It is why communist Eastern Europe remains such a rich field of cinema, despite censorship, and why post-communist Eastern Europe, with rampant privatization and sales of assets, has been unable to consistently produce work at the same standard with equal regularity.

The importance of infrastructure to film has a knock-on effect for countries with a more peripatetic film industry, making it easier to obscure the unique intricacies of each nation’s filmmaking. So, a country like Venezuela, with a tumultuous modern history and a comparative lack of film infrastructure, requires a bit more care on the part of curators, archivists, critics and historians, at least when it comes to presenting and preserving such works for later audiences.

Araya — a landmark of Venezuelan cinema, screened at Cinema Rediscovered in Bristol — is a prime example of a curatorial process coalescing with non-infrastructural national cinema. Margot Benacerraf’s 1959 documentary looks at the lives of salt miners in the Araya peninsula, an isolated area of northeast Venezuela. Benacerraf, despite making only two films in her lifetime (the other being Reverón, a 1951 short), remains a key figure in Venezuelan cinema. Aside from her films, she founded the Nacional Film Library in 1966, playing a crucial role in the development of cinephilia and film culture in her country (and she’s still kicking around at the sprightly age of 96).

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Benacerraf’s film follow salt miners as they perform back-breaking manual labor in the high heat of the day. Araya essentially exists as a document of life on the margins in Latin America, just before industrialization began to change salt mining in the region further. Benacerraf and her cameraman (as a duo, they were the only crew during the shoot) arrived just as the machines did. 

Araya’s stark black-and-white cinematography exacerbates the sweat-drenched temperature of the film — something about the lack of color has the effect of making the heat feel oppressive and punishing, which stands in contrast to the natural beauty of the peninsula. That combination of natural beauty and the punishing effects of labor on the landscape is a recurring theme. Araya begins by highlighting the presence of the ruined Spanish colonial fort on the peninsula, which returns throughout as a reminder of the region’s colonial legacy — the existence of exploitation and the reduction of human life to monetary output. Benacerraf also frequently returns to the daily ritual of village fishermen returning with their catch — which varies between plentiful and scarce — while meditating on that theme between natural bounty and human exploitation.

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Throughout Araya, José Ignacio Cabrujas’ narration is arguably a little too flowery at times (one of the few elements that feels dated), but it provides a useful ballast through which to anchor the film. What hasn’t dated at all, however, is the image-making. I’ve remarked on the starkness of the light already, but that starkness is bolstered by the compositions, which find geometric angles and images that feel vividly expressionistic — salt pyramids in seemingly perfect angles; lines of workers dutifully queuing up to deliver their salt loads; figures standing against the sea, awaiting the return of the fishermen. Or are they gazing out in search of something more?

Araya stands between a realist, observational documentary and a work more obliquely poetic and essayistic. At Cannes, in 1959, the film shared the International Critics Prize with Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. Resnais was himself a director who helped pioneer a particular kind of essayistic documentary/docu-fiction style of filmmaking. (Consider those earlier infrastructural implications when the name of a French auteur like Resnais remains canonical whilst Benacerraf’s is left undervalued, and ask yourself what that means for world film culture.)

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Benacerraf studied film in Paris during the 50s; in Araya, one can certainly see a connection to the intellectually fervent European cinema of the immediate post-war era, concerned as it often was with the impact of modernity on old ways of life and the working classes. At the time, Araya garnered its fair share of comparisons to Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema (The Earth Trembles, 1948) a tale of hardship and class consciousness for a family of Sicilian fishermen; it’s a film that’s halfway between documentary and fiction, directed by an openly Marxist filmmaker, and so a young Benacerraf may have seen it during the late 40s. However, beyond the artificial similarity of subject matter is a similar interest in visual composition, elevating “raw” documentary-style images with framing and perspective.

In Araya, Benacerraf focuses on the aforementioned interplay between landscape and human interaction. In the voiceover’s constant references to the inevitability of the sea and the sand, one could argue there’s an assumption that the poverty of the film’s participants is also inevitable, as if the two are linked. It’s an interesting thread to pull on — not an altogether uncommon attitude in that post-war era, where colonialist mentality could still infect anti-colonialist thinking — but one which leads to a dead end within the film, I think. 

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At the core of Araya is also a sense that poverty is not the be-all and end-all for those living through it, but a fact of life one adapts to. It is a tough existence, yes, not least for the salt miners who work in poor conditions for meager pay because of international demand from which they never see fair recompense. But the existence of the village community, with its rituals and rhythms, is also not one that needs a savior’s intervention to fix and rectify, something which Araya implicitly understands. These contradictions — between human exploitation and natural beauty, between the demands of labor and of village community, and how they co-exist in a rather dissonant, chaotic way — is central to the film’s power. Given Araya’s small-scale origins in a country without a major film industry, it remains a fascinating testament to both the lives of the peninsula’s inhabitants and the film’s own creation.

Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specialising in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.