Revisiting Araya

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Image credit: Milestone Films

Margot Benacerraf’s 1959 film Araya opens with a horizontal pan over freeze-framed clouds: movement within stillness. It’s an apt first image for a film portraying a community in motion, frozen in time. Over aerial shots of arid land as alien as a moonscape, the narrator intones, “On this land nothing grew. All life came from the sea. And from the marriage of sea and sun, salt was born on this island.” The conquistadors named this, the second largest salt marsh in the West Indies, Araya. The King of Spain built a fort to protect it—salt being as precious as gold. In its heyday, Araya was a plundered crossroads. “What became of the slave traders, the pearl merchants, the buccaneers?” asks the narrator. And then, masterfully, cinematographer Giuseppi Nisoli’s camera sweeps over a majestic pyramid of salt, revealing that this desert is not so deserted after all. A long line of men, lean and bronzed, each carrying a basket of salt on his head, is proceeding to the top of the pyramid, its sides raked into sharp geometric planes. At the top they dump their salt—140 pounds per basket—receive a token worth 50 céntimos, and walk down the pyramid to fill their basket again.

This is the first of many cycles in Araya, an extraordinary work depicting 24 hours on this isolated peninsula in northeastern Venezuela, 450 years after the arrival of the conquistadors. It is 6 o’clock in the morning, and Beltrán Pereda and his sons, who have been up all night extracting salt from a lagoon, are among the men seen carrying their haul uphill. We will next meet the Salazars, day-miners on the other side of the lagoon, and the Ortizes, who catch and sell the fish that nourish the miners for another day. The families live in separate villages, many miles apart. It’s a closed economic system, we’re told, of salt and fish and salted fish.

Each family’s actions are performed simultaneously: as the Peredas collect their pay, Dámaso Salazar and his son Nemesio go to work, and Adolfo Ortiz hauls a boat heavy with fish from the sea. At 10 o’clock a siren signals a break for the Pereda men and the salt-packers, who go home for the hottest part of the day. Adolfo’s wife Isabel, carrying a basket of fish on her head, walks from one village to the next, selling fish to Dámaso’s wife Petra, to Beltrán’s wife Daria, haggling when necessary. Daria cooks the fish for Beltrán, while his sister Luisa makes the pottery that stores the rationed drinking water delivered to the peninsula weekly by truck. The fishermen sleep until the siren squalls, calling them back to the boats, the miners back to the lagoon.

While the men sleep, the women undertake a second shift. Petra, who works as a salt-packer in the morning, has to make lunch and do the laundry. Isabel, in particular, is a marvel of tireless industry. After walking many miles to sell her fish, she salts the leftovers for less fortunate days, nurses her baby, and hacks dry branches from the peninsula’s only woods for a makeshift kiln in which to fire Luisa’s pottery—a process that takes advantage of the otherwise inhospitable afternoon winds. Meanwhile, little Carmen Ortiz, seemingly the only child too young to work, gathers shells with which she will decorate tombstones later in the day when she visits the graveyard with her grandmother.

And yet one wonders—if one assumes one is watching a documentary—does Isabel really walk 18 miles with a basket of fish on her head? How did the camera get that reaction shot of Nelita Salazar’s face as she gives her father a cup of coffee? The truth is that the people of Araya were not filmed engaging in the work of their lives but performing their routine for the camera. Araya was fully scripted, its players enacting Benacerraf’s distillation of their lives in a shoot that disrupted their work for three weeks. The scene in which the grandmother wraps a scarf around her head and lights a cigar required twenty takes due to strong winds; typically, she would have lit her cigar indoors, but the light was too low. And so a film depicting labour repeated day after day was itself created by repetition.

…a film depicting labour repeated day after day was itself created by repetition.

Benacerraf has called her film “collaborative,” although certainly not in the same sense as Jean Rouch’s ethnofictions in Niger, in which the filmmaker’s subjects created their own scenarios and provided commentary on the soundtrack. And yet she was also not Robert Flaherty, her most obvious forebear in documentaries about outlying communities making the most of what little nature offers. Benacerraf says she “composed” the Ortiz family (much as Flaherty did the family in Man of Aran)—Carmen, Isabel, and the grandmother aren’t actually related—for like Flaherty, she understood the unique ability of a child to provoke audience sympathies. But her interventions do not go as far as Flaherty’s, who sent his Irish fishermen shark hunting when that practice had been abandoned 50 years earlier.

Leaving her camera behind, Benacerraf made research trips to Araya to get to know the families and wrote her screenplay back in Caracas. In a short French documentary in which she returns to Araya in 2007 (included in the extras on Milestone’s DVD, and reminiscent of George Stoney’s 1978 visit to Aran in How the Myth was Made), Benito Salazar, who still lives in the village where he grew up, describes the process: “She would direct me: ‘Walk over there. Climb up that pyramid. Then come down and stop.’ I did everything she asked me to. She asked us in such a tender way, without offending me.”

Image credit: Milestone Films

It is interesting to hear his voice for the first time—Benacerraf’s subjects are rarely heard. We see young lovers in conversation (another fiction, for as the director informs us on the commentary track, the two actually hated each other) but hear only the narrator: “What do they say to each other? … The simplest words.” The absence of dialogue was determined by the circumstances of production—as in Flaherty’s sound films, the tape recorder was not synched to the camera. On the commentary track, Benacerraf responds to this criticism: “Why do you want to talk if every day you do the same thing? Really, there’s this sort of fatality, of saying, ‘What else can we do?’” But this seems disingenuous: to give her subjects speech would render them less archetypal. “Their gestures always identical, ritualistic, exacting,” exhorts the narrator over the early-morning exertions. “Gestures for centuries repeated.” And again we see this in an arresting scene depicting four boys breaking salt in unison, their long sticks making perfectly coordinated arcs over their heads, the pounding ostinato underscoring the narration about repetition, which is repetitious in itself.

Similarly, the film’s depiction of a closed economic system has its holes. If nothing grows on this land, where does the corn come from that Angelica is pounding?  What of the cigarettes dangling from the women’s mouths? And how is it possible that such industrious people eat, as the narrator tells us, nothing but fish? This is not Buñuel’s Land Without Bread—there are no goiters, no children dying in the streets. And then there is the overarching question: For whom do the salt miners work? Or is this a portrait of a subsistence economy, carrying on after the abdication of empire?

Perhaps these are the wrong questions to ask a work of what the filmmaker calls “poetic realism.” The Peredas, the Salazars and the Ortizes are people, yes, but they are also cogs in a capitalist machinery, performing their labours exactly as their ancestors did. Their eerie, nasal songs, distinct to each village, are Andalusian, and rarely heard outside of the peninsula. And at the very moment Benacerraf was recording their labours, their way of life was about to disappear.

Benacerraf filmed Araya in the very last year before salt mining was industrialized by the government of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Salaraya, the development was to be called, would have housing projects for the workers, a hospital and even resorts to attract tourists. The lines of miners bearing buckets would be replaced by cranes and conveyor belts, in an operation that would ultimately require a mere 15 miners and 20 baggers. Predictably, these amenities never materialized, and a way of life, however onerous, was destroyed.

What became of Benacerraf’s subjects? In the 2007 documentary, Fortunato Pereda, once movie-star handsome, is now wizened and practically toothless. Benito Salazar became a carpenter. Many others left, or died. They went the way of the conquistadors, the slave traders, the pearl merchants, the buccaneers. But there was more to the story, more that would tamper with the myth of the film. A study of its surviving subjects by Andrés José Salazar, published in 2017 in the Ecuadoran journal Alteridad: Revista de Educación, reveals that for all three families, breaking the cycle through education was a priority. Dámaso’s youngest sons went to school, along with all eight of Fortunato’s children. One of Isabel’s sons, perhaps taking after his mother, is an accountant.

And what became of Benacerraf? This, her first feature, made remarkably with a two-person crew, shared the Critics Prize at Cannes with Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1959, the year of The 400 Blows and Black Orpheus. Glauber Rocha saw the film at Cannes and was inspired to make some of the first films of the anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist Cinema Novo in Brazil. And yet Araya was not screened in Venezuela—except in Araya, by Benacerraf, for its players—for 18 years.

Benacerraf, one of the first Latin American filmmakers to study at Paris’ famed IDHEC—and one of only three women in her class—never made another film. She did, however, became a foundational figure of Venezuelan cinema. Appointed to a position roughly equivalent to the chairmanship of the Canada Council or the NEA, she sent mobile A/V units that screened UNESCO hygiene films to indigenous communities, with the intention of recording their folklore—until the units were hijacked by political candidates. She founded the National Cinemateque of Venezuela, soliciting old prints that would otherwise have been destroyed, and Fundavisual Latina, sister to the funding organizations that Gabriel García Márquez had established in other Latin American countries.

In 1968 she tried to return to filmmaking, collaborating with García Márquez on a screenplay called Eréndira that was also set in an otherworldly desert, and incorporated a bizarre scene she had observed while filming Araya (but for which she did not have the extra stock). As she recounted in a 1991 interview with Karen Schwartzman for the Journal of Film and Video, Pérez Jiménez suddenly arrived with a large entourage—including concubines—to preside over a mass wedding for those who had not married under the proper Roman Catholic authority. Financing a film to be shot in Colombia and Venezuela was difficult. In the 1980s, Eréndira was finally filmed by Ruy Guerra, a classmate at IDHEC, in Mexico. Benacerraf is not a fan. She also did not receive writing credit. Venezuela is now in the headlines, its gold no longer salt, but oil; its plunderers now include China and Russia. (Imagine Donald Trump threatening to go to war over salt!) But the mining persists. In 1995, the salt mine was privatized, the concession given to Tecnosal, whose international investors have included George Soros. Tecnosal created over 500 jobs, finally initiated the promised health and cultural amenities, and even partially rehabbed the fortress. Araya still produces 500,000 tons of salt a year, some of it sold in supermarkets in green plastic bags. In many supermarkets, salt is one of the only things on the shelves. Venezuelans, once again, are no longer sharing in their land’s good fortune. The cycles Benacerraf observed continue in the form of coups d’état and economic booms and busts. The Peredas are still trudging up that hill, indelibly embodying the larger truths of Araya’s poetic realism.

Ann Lewinson has been a film critic for the Boston Phoenix, Hartford Advocate and the Kansas City Star, and can currently be found at ARTnews. She lives in New York City.

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Ann Lewinson has been a film critic for the Boston Phoenix, Hartford Advocate and the Kansas City Star, and can currently be found at ARTnews. She lives in New York City.