Want more salt on your fries? This movie shows how the salt got in your shaker, or at least how it used to get there. It’s not a pretty picture and yet, paradoxically, it’s a beautiful picture.
Margot Benacerraf’s Araya epitomizes a contradiction between social protest and lyricism in the field of ethnographic documentary. In 1957, Benacerraf was amazed to discover a remote corner of Venezuela where indigenous communities carried on as they had for centuries since the Spanish landing, harvesting salt from the beaches in order to maintain their tenuous balance of carefully exploited poverty. As her film follows three families over the course of a day (including a grandmother and grandchild who are actually unrelated), every frame stands as a cry and condemnation that this terrible way of life must change. At the same time, Giuseppe Nisoli’s ravishingly sharp black and white photography aestheticizes and idealizes the dignity and nobility of the people and their lifestyle that none of us would want. Some traditions don’t deserve to be preserved.
Benacerraf’s film includes the first abrupt arrival of industrialization, which is going to change this way of life forever, and asks tentatively if it will be a good thing. In the bonus interviews, she seems to think it wasn’t and she’s right in a way, since the area didn’t become rich, salt mining actually dropped, and most of the villagers moved elsewhere in search of jobs now that they weren’t needed to devote their lives to this harsh routine. One function of capitalism is that the poor tend to stay poor. But as she revisits a few people who were in her movie 50 years ago, I wanted to ask if they now at least have electricity or running water, if their children go to school, if they have a more comfortable life than their ancestors, and if those who went away are perhaps better off than if industrialization never came. Nobody asks these questions.
In the tradition of Robert Flaherty, Araya takes poetic liberties for narrative. It made an impression at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival (the year of The 400 Blows), picking up a well-deserved prize for photography and another for the sound (including a carefully layered soundtrack by composer Guy Bernard) , and sharing the Critics’ Prize with Hiroshima Mon Amour. Since then it’s been obscure until this restoration played at the 2009 Berlin Festival. The extras do a good job of explaining Benacerraf’s impact on Venezuelan film; although she didn’t make more features, she was active in founding and developing resources. She is interviewed on the commentary track and there are other profiles. Also included is her short documentary on the painter Reveron. This is an exemplary release from Milestone, which devotes itself to putting together Criterion-worthy packages that amount to labors of love.