Fifty years after Margot Benacerraf’s documentary Araya played in competition at the Cannes film festival—in the year of The 400 Blows and Hiroshima Mon Amour, no less—it’s been beautifully restored for a belated U.S. release. But anyone coming to Araya expecting a great, lost classic of world cinema is likely to walk away disappointed. The movie is visually stunning, deploying fluid camerawork and stark black-and-white imagery to record the hardscrabble lives of Venezuelans living and working on a remote salt marsh. As a piece of documentary filmmaking though, Araya is more noteworthy for what it reveals about a changing artform than for what it has to say about its subjects.
More a Robert Flaherty than a Frederick Wiseman, Benacerraf constantly imposes her own interpretation on what we’re seeing. Her narrator José Ignacio Cabrujas—who rarely shuts up—describes the brutal heat and the unbroken monotony of a day spent gathering salt and fish. Even when one worker breaks for lunch, Cabrujas comments that the man eats in silence, and “endlessly repeats the same gestures.” Benacerraf never lets us hear the voices of the Arayans except in distant shouting or low murmuring, and she rarely differentiates between the people she films. Are any of them funny? Do any tell good stories? At one point Benacerraf shows two young lovers walking along the beach and Cabrujas says they speak in “simple words,” but we don’t get to hear any of those words first-hand.
Still, Araya is of sociological interest. It’s fascinating to watch the villagers make clay pots by hand—with no wheel—and to see the nearly 24-hour-a-day process of salt-production, from pulling chunks out of the sea to pulverizing it into granules to carting it onto enormous salt pyramids. At the end of the film, Benacerraf implies that these centuries-old rituals may be coming to an end as new technology intrudes, so it’s commendable that she captured it all on film before a whole lifestyle disappeared. But in an irony that modern cineastes will appreciate, the kind of aloof, deterministic documentary filmmaking Benacerraf practices here turned out to be on its last legs as well. Benacerraf sees the dump trucks and dynamite in front of her, but misses the cinema verité movement nipping at her heels.