ARAYA (Margot Benacerraf, 1959)

“All life comes from the sea.” We hear this in the Venezuelan documentary Araya—the name of a northeastern village whose inhabitants survive by mining salt from a shallow salt marsh and by fishing. Jose Ignacio Cabrujas and Margot Benacerraf, the film’s director, wrote the plentiful voiceover narration that, while seeming simple, contributes to something more complex. For Benacerraf begins her film up in the clouds, the appearance of which is mimicked by a coral formation once the camera descends into the water below. Nature proves insidious in Araya.
     Winner of prizes at Cannes, Venice and Locarno, the film depicts the incredibly harsh labor that the salt mining entails—work done by both men and women and even children. Initially, the camera slowly glides back and forth surveying the labor, generating irony: the discrepancy between strenuous human effort and the seemingly effortless camera recording it. Another irony: the reigning salt-water sea the waves of which lap onto a desert. Montages vividly demonstrate the dryness of the land, and a truck bringing water attracts villagers as though it were the Messiah.
     Stunning image: in fierce sunlight, their shadows as men break down salt cakes with picks. The salineros appear to be striking themselves—over and over again.
     Spanish conquistadors discovered the salt deposits around 1550, and the peasants have mined the salt in the same primitive way since. Suddenly, dynamite—in addition to this heart-stopping (though somewhat corny) explosion, “progress” arrives in the form of equipment: crane; tractor. Those manning the machines are mostly kept invisible—like those other technological invaders, the filmmaker and her cinematographer. We thus feel torn: however back-breaking, this work should not be snatched away from the villagers. Like us, they are entitled to live.
     This okay film could have been sharper, tighter.

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