BluRay/DVD Reviews

ARAYA

By • Jun 8th, 2011 •

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For a long time, I’ve been a huge fan of Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, who have run Milestone Films out of their home as a labor of love on the sparest of shoestrings, resurrecting such films lost to the ravages of time and caprices of fashion as KILLER OF SHEEP and I AM CUBA. Milestone Films DVDs come with the most exquisite of transfers amid a bounty of interesting and informative extras. This sort of thing is not easy to do, especially in the shrinking DVD market, so I wanted to give their new release what support I could.

ARAYA is a movie I’ve never heard of before, though it did have a theatrical run here two years ago, which somehow went right past my radar. The film is considered a landmark in Venezuela as a prototype of poetic realist Latin American cinema of the 1960’s, and also won two awards at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959, the International Critics Award, shared with Alain Resnais’ HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR, and Le Grand Prix de la Commission Superieure Technique. In the United States, however, ARAYA sunk into a fog of cultural obscurity from which it has only now emerged, thanks to Milestone Films and this fabulous DVD, which has some of the most dazzling black and white cinematography I’ve ever seen.

The film, shot in 1957 by Margot Benacerraf, a Venezuelan journalist whose first and only feature this was, documents in brittle, iridescent images a treacherous universe of sea, sand and sun, lorded over both visually and dramatically by gigantic pyramids of salt, gathered up, then replenished by workers resembling bowed supplicants. Every day, the men of the island of Araya stack salt in pyramids to dry, while their wives and children shovel the salt of the previous day into mesh bags and sew them shut.

Araya is an island off the southern coast of Venezuela, whose harsh, desert-like terrain contains the largest salt marsh in Latin America. Founded by the Spanish conquistadores in 1500, this community system of mining salt was still in place when Ms. Benacerraf came upon the island in the late 1950’s. Araya’s inhabitants, who lived with no electricity or running water in ancient ramshackle huts separated into two communities – one for the salt miners, who were paid for their labor by a French company; the other by fishermen who sold a portion of their catch to the salt miners – existed in a kind of bubble, outside of time and seemingly unconnected to the modern, industrialized world of the 1950’s.

In reality, that modern world was quickly approaching in the form of a factory for processing salt that was being built as the film was being made. Therefore, Ms. Benacerraf’s main interest was to document what she refers to as “the ancient system of community labor” which through an incomprehensible quirk of fate was somehow preserved in all of its harsh beauty and brutal equanimity on the island of Araya.

The film follows the lives of the inhabitants of the island from sunrise to another sunrise on the following day. Because nothing happens except for the inexorable pattern of everyday life, Ms. Benacerraf is able to focus on the essential human core of this apparently exotic existence. Everything in this film – from the sun beating down on tempestuous ocean waves to pale pyramids of salt stacked on undulating stretches of sand – is seen from the perspective of people for whom these sights are simply part of ordinary existence. Somehow, this immersion in the quotidian in both storytelling and camera style makes for a much more compelling and satisfying film then one would think possible.

In Ms. Benacerraf’s film, the camera never seems to stop moving, just as the subjects of her film never seem to rest from their constant activity, and the pyramids never stop growing and simultaneously shrinking. Because of the indelible link of family labor with the harsh environment around them, where both object and subject merge in the shadows of the past to open a window upon the future, ARAYA posits a sense of community as an almost mystical communion with nature which is the central focus of the film, like a Pablo Neruda poem come to life. (Oddly enough, when Ms. Benacerraf finished the editing, she initially approached Neruda to provide a narration, who responded, “Your film is already a poem. What do you need another poem for?”)

For instance, in an image which is used as the illustration for the DVD box, we see Beltran Pereda, the patriarch of one of four families we follow through the course of the film, ascend to the top of a pyramid, his arms upraised. Behind him, as in a stanza of Neudra’s (the hand’s weight, the bird’s weight, are one/aerial substances, the bird or the man/alike in their self-will, their flights, and their passions…” ) a seagull raises its wings as it flies towards the sun, rising above the wispy clouds that part like a curtain. After following the bird’s ascent, the camera first pans then cuts to the ground below, where we see Beltrans’ wife, Petra, look up towards her husband as she finishes sewing up the last bag of salt that will go to the mainland that day.

I consider the continually moving camera of ARAYA, linear yet mysterious, linking its subjects to both the specificity of the land as well as the universality of the cosmos, as a harbinger of the revolutionary cinema of the 1960’s, realized in the films of such directors as Glauber Rocha and Miguel Littin. Ultimately, the camera movements and editing rhythms in ARAYA, which are simultaneously mythic in their poetic vision yet specific in the day-to-day activity that is being documented, seem to express an expansion of consciousness. “This is ours,” the images seem to say. “This is our sun. This is our salt. These are our people.”

In an extra that accompanies the feature, the filmmaker returns to Araya after 50 years, and meets with the subjects that have survived. The pyramids of salt have vanished, replaced by a factory, and the standard of living for the inhabitants of the island is much higher than before. (In the documentary, the salt marsh is pink and rose against a neon blue sky, making one regret that Ms. Benacerraf chose to shoot her film in black and white.) One elderly gentleman, Benito, who was in his early 30’s while the film was being made, laughingly complains how Ms. Benacerraf would make him repeat the same action over and over, “but she directed me so tenderly I couldn’t possibly refuse.”

While this kind of rehearsal seems the antithesis of the spontaneous aesthetic of documentary (in the liner notes, Ms. Benacerraf seems to anticipate this objection by calling her film a “tone poem” as opposed to a documentary), the pre-planning enabled Ms. Benacerraf to create the extraordinary sequences that move from close-ups of the individuals at work to panoramic views of the surrounding area, which not only imparts a palpable sense of the individuals in their environment, but also manages to fuse the present with the past.

Although I feel ARAYA is a true discovery that should be seen by everyone, the style of the film is somewhat problematic. I’m particularly referring to the irritating and mostly irrelevant narration – for instance, “They reinitiate the daily ritual of the salt, reencountering their same ancient gestures endlessly under the same sun.” – which works against the subtle, visionary quality of Ms. Benacerraf’s imagery (it’s too bad the filmmaker didn’t heed Neruda’s advice) as well as the sleep-inducing score with crescendos of cascading notes.

I also have problems with some of the editing choices the director made. For instance, her subjects seem completely isolated in an “existential” manner while being surrounded by family members in the midst of back-breaking labor. We hear their voices on the soundtrack but almost never see them speaking to each other. Instead, they stare out into space like stone faces carved in ancient monuments. This is something that I find not only implausible but also pulls me out of the reality of the film.

As I stated at the outset, Scott McQueen’s restoration of ARAYA is simply breathtaking, containing some of the most amazing black and white photography I’ve ever seen. Milestone’s 16×9 anamorphic transfer is utterly immaculate without any electronic flaws, looking to these eyes like a theatrical 35mm print projected under optimal conditions. The extra features are substantial and fairly engrossing, including Ms. Benacerraf’s short film about the Venezuelan artist Reveron, which is of similar quality and visual elegance as the feature which it accompanies.

While certain ultimately superficial aspects of the production, such as music and narration, definitely are beginning to show their age, ARAYA remains not only a revelation as filmmaking, but an unique documentation of a centuries old culture that has now vanished from the earth, and is therefore Highly Recommended.

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