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Milestone Films has been behind some of the most important film restorations and releases in the past few years, including Killer of Sheep and The Exiles, both legendary American independents previously given little or no theatrical exposure. Milestone has now turned its attention to an even more rare Venezuelan / French production that won accolades at several of the biggest film festivals.
The standalone feature Araya was filmed in blazingly clear 35mm by Margot Benacerraf, a Venezuelan classically educated in France who was inspired to look for ethnographic film subjects in her home country. In 1957 she came upon an isolated place in the Northeastern part of the country where an entire society was based on the mining of salt from vast marshes next to the ocean. It never rains and almost nothing grows. The local inhabitants live in the wind and under the cruel sun, their entire lives dedicated to either fishing (the diet is almost entirely seafood and some corn) or working like primitive slaves in communal salt production. Hauling 140 kilos at a time, the workers amass huge pyramids of salt. Their day consists of work, eating and sleep. It's a life of hard labor. Whenever a boat appears, night or day, the women must go down to pack salt to be loaded. Water trucks bring in the only fresh water. It's a closed economy. What one does at six years old, will be the daily routine for the rest of one's life.
Benacerraf's approach is wholly modern. Although technically a documentary like Man of Aran, Araya is first and foremost a poetic film that's part ethnological essay, and part social document. The immediate impression is of great beauty -- the very first images of ocean waves have a photographic clarity that puts one on the alert. The music by Guy Bernard (Guernica) is equally arresting. We do hear some indigenous rhythms and songs, but the overriding score reminds one of dreamlike '50s mystery music. Harp glissandos that bring to mind cues from The Outer Limits. The sparse narration is written and recited with a poetic flair.
Ms. Benacerraf and her cameraman Giuseppe Nisoli show more than a flair for great images ... practically every shot in Araya is a beauty. The white salt ground reflects so much light that ordinary day photography in the blazing sun produces crystal clear images of hundreds of men hauling baskets of salt in an endless cycle. Benacerraf stages most of the action, but as the narrator explains, the motions of the workers are so ingrained that they are incapable of doing things differently. The compositions are exacting, and we see sophisticated and unobtrusive trucking and crane shots. Nanook of the North never looked like this - it's an accurate but expressive portrait of a primitive existence cut off from modern civilization. One woman makes pots and we see another who sells fish door to door and then returns to nurse her baby son. It's like a vision from the pre-industrial past.
Frankly, compared to Araya, the ethnographical/spiritual essay documentary Powaqqatsi now seems like a commercial concert film for Philip Glass, backed by pretty images and overloaded with political messages. Powaqqatsi is a beautiful experience, but Araya is less hectoring. Ms.Benacerraf has no axe to grind other than what her images suggest. Late in the show we see some shots of modern construction and earth moving machines that make it look as if alien visitors are imposing a new order onto the landscape. The narration asks if the changes of industrialization will improve the lives of these amazing people, or simply replace the people with machines. A little girl collects seashells and coral to adorn the crude graveyard, and the docu ends by asking if there will someday be real flowers in Araya. We of course wonder how long it will take for the salt resources to be 'developed' and 'privatized', wiping out this survival-oriented local culture. It's an awful existence, but what is the alternative - the corruption of the shanty towns?
Araya won awards at Cannes and other film festivals but pretty much disappeared soon thereafter. Margot Benacerraf never made another film, and instead dedicated herself to the founding of a film archive and studies center in Caracas.
Milestone's DVD of Araya is an enhanced widescreen transfer in dazzling B&W ... the images look like pages from an art photography book, clean, crisp and devoid of damage and dirt. The disc credit for this restoration goes to Scott MacQueen, Dennis Doros and Jimmy Walker of Fotokem.
Like the previous films rescued by Milestone, Araya has been beautifully restored to its original brilliance. The choice of narrations is a tough one, as the voices of both José Ignacio Cabrujas (in Spanish) and actor Laurent Terzieff (in French) blend beautifully with the expressive music track. I think I will want to work listening to this track in the background.
Milestone's extras encompass the entire Margot Benacerraf story. Her only other film, 1953's Reverón is present in an acceptable transfer. The roughly half-hour docu profiles the Venezuelan painter, displaying images of his work between laudatory scenes of the artist at work in his home. Benacerraf uses a number of large dolls decorating Reverón's shop to comment on his art -- they seem to be spiritual sentinels, looking over his shoulder.
The video documentary Margot Benacerraf: The Film of Her Life shows the filmmaker's 2007 return to the Araya - Estado Sucre area to find the entire civilization-in-miniature vanished, replaced by several machines that were introduced at the same time she was filming in 1957. The area looks quite different in color, with the vast salt tide pools adding bright pink to the white of the ground and the cloudless blue of the sky. Fifteen men now operate a mining machine and twenty more labor at a bagging machine, "pushing buttons". They wear facemasks against the dust: no more open wounds and salt ulcers that don't heal. The graves in the cemetery are no longer marked, not even with coral and shells.
50 years later Ms. Benacerraf has a pleasant reunion with one of her filming subjects. She calls Araya not a documentary but an Italian-style "racconto" short film. She likes the application of the term "poetic realism" to her work and is proud that Pablo Neruda praised her picture. He turned down the job of writing the movie's narration, saying that he "couldn't superimpose poetry on what was already poetic."
A 1995 Venezulan video docu Margot Benacerraf: Mas allá de Araya (director Ricard García Garcés) takes a standard interview and documentation approach to the life of the filmmaker and her importance to the film culture of Venezuela. Various filmmakers and teachers cover her upbringing in Europe and her fascination with Latin America. Interestingly, we see stills that explain how Benacerraf achieved her perfectly smooth trucking and crane shots: she used the very same modern construction equipment that was in the process of replacing the army of human laborers.
Also included is a 2001 interview with Margot Benacerraf from a show called "Obra & Arte"; Milestone's premiere trailer and several DVD-Rom text features. Araya is a must-see picture for fans of ethnographic documentaries, as well as film enthusiasts eager to be moved by superlative film poetry.
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T'was Ever Thus.