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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classic. Araya



Araya (Four Stars)
Venezuela/France: Margot Benacerraf, 1959 (Milestone Film & Video)
Art can be exhilarating, life can be disappointing. The uncommonly beautiful Venezuelan movie, Araya — a big critical success and major award winner at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959 — has been neglected in America for most of the last half-century, even though it’s one of the great documentaries, and, for me, one of the great Latin American films. And even though it should have paved the way to a brilliant and productive career for it’s then 33-year-old writer-director, Margot Benacerraf.

Instead, Benacerraf’s filmmaking career was cut short. Araya became her last feature film and one that relatively few people in America have seen (or even heard about) — until its recent release, theatrically and on DVD, by Milestone Film and Video. Now, you can watch Araya in a restored version, on Milestone’s excellent new DVD. (And I hope you will.)

In 1959, when Ms. Benacerraf took her film to the Cannes Film Festival, she saw it win two major prizes: the Grand Prix de le Commission Superieure Technique and The International Critics’ Prize, which Araya shared with the classic film Hiroshima Mon Amour. (That was a vintage Cannes year: The Palme d’Or winner was Black Orpheus, and the Best Director prize went to Francois Truffaut for The 400 Blows.) But despite those awards, and despite the strong support of her friend and mentor, French Cinematheque head Henri Langlois, Benacerraf was never able, for the rest of her life to put together another film project. (She‘s now 84.) Her filmography includes only three films — Araya and two shorts — and two of the three are on Milestone’s DVD.

Yet Benacerraf‘s Araya looks as beautiful now as it must have back in 1959, when it so impressed a  Cannes jury that included Gene Kelly and Julien Duvivier. Shot in stunning black and white, with a minimal crew — mostly just Benacerraf and the Italian cinematographer Giuseppe Nisoli — it was a lyrical portrayal of Araya, Venezuela, and its people.

Araya, a city on a peninsula jutting into the ocean, with a huge barren-looking beach under the hot sky, was a place of few trees, little vegetation, and no crops, but home to one of the world‘s largest salt marshes. There, for 500 years, right up to the year this movie was shot, the people of the area made their living by either fishing or selling salt from the marsh. They stacked the salt in huge, striking-looking white pyramids, and they packed and carried it to the buyers in 140 pound baskets, which, at the time of the movie, they sold for about a nickel a basket.

Araya begins (and ends) with shots of the rolling ocean, the cloud- strewn sky. Then, after a brief narration of the history of the salt marsh and the peninsula — which became, at one point, a center of commerce and even piracy, site of a Spanish fortress now fallen into ruins — Araya focuses on the villagers who lived there in the ‘50s, and on their daily lives. It is a way of life that had lasted for nearly 500 years, but would soon be gone forever — except in the painterly frames and moving pictures we see here, in Benacerraf’s film.

How did this woman, in her early 30s, have the nerve to conceive such a project, and to plan and shoot it, with little money or support, almost all alone? Benacerraf may have come from a small country, Venezuela, with not much cinema culture, but she herself had plenty. A budding playwright, Margot had gone to Paris to film school at the famed IDHEC (where she was one of only three women in her class). But she got her primary schooling at the French Cinematheque, where she became a special pet of the legendary boss, Henri Langlois, and also part of the group of cinephiles and future filmmakers that included Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais (the director of Hiroshima Mon Amour).

As for Araya, Margot had been struck by a photo of those towering, bizarrely beautiful white salt pyramids erected by the workers on the beach, which she had seen in a magazine. So she traveled to Araya, studied the area, befriended the people, and finally set up a shooting schedule and plan with Nisoli and her “actors.”

She conceived the film, she says, not as reportage, but as a lyrical tone poem, like Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran and Louisiana Story, or Resnais’ art documentaries, or the early post-war Italian neo-realist films of Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti. It would be a film of real life, centered around a day in the lives of three Araya families. She would show the Ortiz family men fishing and the Peredas men carrying the salt, with the women peddling the fish, cleaning the houses, preparing food, and, near the end of the day, at what filmmakers call “The Magic Hour,” walking to a graveyard and decorating the graves of their loved ones with sea-shells arranged like flowers.

Then Benacerraf would show, suddenly, as if by some warlike invasion of the peninsula‘s bloody past, the onset of the industrialization of the Araya salt marsh, the appearance of the earth-movers and heavy machinery, of the forces that would put an end to the community, to both their business and their art — those strange, striking white pyramids. Finally the camera would return to gaze at the ocean, the clouds, with the filmmakers and audience left to ruminate on the Earth, our planet on which the whole five century span of the Araya communities was only a speck of time, like a grain of salt or a grain of sand.

The film was shot, remarkably, in only three weeks, and Benacerraf, who had begun as a playwright, wanted a poetic narration for it. So, when it was edited, and scored by composer Guy Bernard (who also used indigenous folk music themes of the area), she showed Araya to the poet Pablo Neruda and asked him to write the narration. Neruda declined, telling her that, since the film itself was a poem, his words would be superfluous; one could not lay one poem on top of another.

So Margot wrote the narration herself, with Pierre Seghers, and it was spoken by Jose Ignacio Cabrujas (in Spanish) and by Bunuel actor Laurent Terzieff (in French). Margot’s writing is spare and poetic; I like it very much. But Neruda had a point. Lyrical and sensitive as Benacerraf’s narration is, and much as I treasure it, the words can not be as poetic as the images.

You watch Benacerraf’s visions of Araya, the ones she and Nisoli caught in those few weeks, and you’re stunned. Like the white salt pyramids towering on the Araya beach, her images catch your eye and stay in your heart. How beautiful they are: her framing sequences of ocean and sky, the views of the fishermen bobbing in their boats, the immaculate-looking little huts, the beach crowded with salt packers, the camera peeking over the tops of those transient monuments (the pyramids), the whole busy tableau on the beach, the faces of the men folk trudging along, risking injury and salt ulcers for their nickel a bag, the faces of the women as they cook the food and visit the graves, the waves rolling, rolling to the sand… And then the disruptive attack of the machinery which, like the pirates of old, lays waste to the beach and brings down the towers, while the ocean waves roll and crash and the clouds lie placidly in the sky above them.

Araya is a portrait of exploitation and of an awful dispossession and destruction. But it’s not batteringly insistent or angry, as you’d suspect a good or great male director’s vision of peasant life in the 1950s might be. It’s not theatrical and operatic, like Visconti‘s masterful 1947 epic of exploited Sicilian fishermen, La Terra Trema. Araya, despite dynamic editing by Pierre Jallaud and Benacerraf, and despite the frequently moving camera shots of Nisoli, is a quiet work, by turns lively and meditative. It is a unique film and perhaps only someone like Benacerraf, with her mix of Venezuelan simplicity and Parisian sophistication, could have made it.

Araya and its Cannes victories were a spectacular entrance for her onto the world cinema stage. But it was a deceptive one. Benacerraf was never able, for the rest of her life, to make another movie — despite much time and effort and scripting. Perhaps that was because she was Venezuelan, from a small country with little international push or cinema prestige. Perhaps it was because of her subject matter in Araya: poor people hanging onto an age-old way of life, but finding themselves exploited and then displaced by modern technology. Perhaps it was because she was a woman. Perhaps it was because she was a true artist, and money-men of all kinds are often suspicious of art, unless they see a price tag somewhere. Whatever the reason, this great filmmaker made no more feature films after Araya. But at least she had been able to make her masterpiece.

Margot Benacerraf is now 85. You can see and hear her in the extras — the documentary, the commentaries and interviews — on the Milestone DVD: still alive, still articulate, still full of love for the world around her and the cinema that can capture it. Though she never made another feature film after her Cannes triumph with Araya, she remains a major figure in her country‘s cinema history, both for her filmmaking and for her directorship of the Venezuelan National Film Library and other cinema institutions. (She became, in a way, her country‘s Langlois.) In the DVD interviews and commentary, she sounds youthful, hopeful, not at all bitter, full of an artist’s pride and joy, full of love for cinema, full of happiness for her achievement and for her memories. Older filmmakers have continued making films well into old age, including the late Kon Ichikawa, who was still directing at 89, and the remarkable, prolific Portuguese cineaste Manoel de Oliveira, another Cannes favorite, who has continued directing past his 100th birthday. Maybe, if they gave her a cameraman and a little money, she could still make another one. I’m sure she thinks so. Maybe…

I met Margot Benacerraf once when she came to Chicago in 1995, to show Araya. I was greatly impressed, and wanted to write about it at length, to help her get recognition, and maybe to help her make another film. (She was only 69 then.) But I only got three little paragraphs into the Chicago Tribune. Why? I’m not sure. It makes me feel sad to remember her, though I’m extremely happy that Milestone found Margot, and that Araya has now had an American theatrical release, and a DVD release, and some ecstatic reviews.

Araya deserves them. So does Margot Benacerraf. But she really deserved so much more: more than she got from the world of cinema, the world that she loved so much, to which she devoted her life, and which now can pay her back, a little. Like many artists, she may have been cheated, a victim of her own talent and idealism. And of politics, of course.

See her film now, in any case. She has such a small legacy to share with us: just those two shorts, and her magnificent poem Araya. Somehow though, it’s enough. (In Spanish and French, with English subtitles.)

Includes: Reveron (Venezuela: Margo Benacerraf, 1953). Three Stars. Benacerraf’s short film on Armando Reveron, a famous Venezuelan painter whom we see, white-bearded and at work, in his house-studio near the ocean, where he makes Gauguin-like paintings of women and plants. Though the film is in black-and-white and Reveron’s work in what looks like blazing color, it gives you a sense of paintings and the painter, like few other documentaries. (Benacerraf‘s third film, unmentioned in IMDB, was about Pablo Picasso.) (English narration voiced by Ben Smith.)

The Film of Her Life: Araya (France: Antoine Mora, 2007) Three stars. A fine film on the making of Araya, on Benacerraf’s return there after 48 years, on her reunion with her subjects, and, movingly, on their delight at seeing her again. (In Spanish, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Two commentaries on Araya and Reveron, with Margot Benacerraf, interviewed by Milestone‘s Dennis Doros; Two TV interviews with Benacerraf; The alternate French sound track for Araya; Benacerraf’s PDF files; Araya Press Kit and Trailer.


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One Response to “Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classic. Araya”

  1. Being a Venezuelan, it was odd that I first saw ‘Araya’ on the big screen in the United States, when I attended the Chicago Latino Film Festival in 1995. In Venezuela it’s a film more revered than seen. More people should give it a try.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon