The Turning Wheel
The morning advances, white and hard.
—José Ignacio Cabrujas, Araya
Salt and fish, fish and salt. Again and again in Margot Benacerraf’s Araya, workers go to the sea and bring back salt and fish. Fathers pass on rituals of life and labor, their sons apparently unthinking as they accept their lots, and proceed as heir ancestors have done. At once lyrical and relentless, the documentary follows their daily rhythms, their treks to the shore, the baskets they load and carry, their weary walks home again.
Before these men and women moved in, hundreds of years ago, the shores of Araya looked much the same: windswept, barren, dry and hot, a “land where nothing grew.” Like the stark black-and-white images of waves and beaches, the voice of narrator José Ignacio Cabrujas shapes the history he describes. Around 1500, he intones, “men set foot on this desolate land,” a peninsula in northern Venezuela. And on “immense salt marsh much larger than human eyes had ever contemplated,” they discover a source of wealth and erect a fortress to protect it. As the camera tilts up to look at the ruins of this stronghold, the empty sky beyond is grey and foreboding and endless. No matter humans’ measly efforts to organize and profit from it, the film submits, Araya remains resolute.
Awarded the Cannes critics’ prize in 1959 (along with Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour), Bencerraf’s movie is now restored and released for the first time in the U.S. by Milestone Films (the excellent company who previously recovered and distributed Killer of Sheep). Now open at New York’s IFC Center, the film is neither unbiased nor celebratory, showing tensions between workers and their world in shots both bleak and beautiful. Director of photography Giuseppe Nisoli alternates between long landscapes and close-ups of faces, different-seeming shots that tell similar stories of monotony and resilience.
Beltran Pereda, one laborer among many, bends to extract salt, as the film shows his sons at work, carrying and spreading salt to dry in the sun, lugging it in wheelbarrows, adding to the huge salt pyramids that alter the profile of the shore, but not its severity. “With their hands, with their shovels, with the strength of their arms,” Cabrujas says, the workers “re-initiate the ritual of the salt.” Indeed, the narration, at once repetitive, literal, and allusive, echoes such re-initiation. It’s hardly subtle, but this layering of image and language insists on their daily interconnectedness, suggests the ways all existence—comprised of routines, horizons, and expectations—is shaped by the words used to describe it.
Each landscape echoes the one before. “On the other side of the lagoon,” the story goes, another set of workers performs their own rituals. Salt packers and fishermen, their wives and their children, submit to their fates. The film asserts that such labor creates community: “The net will unite again the men of the fishing boats and again they will rediscover the daily brotherhood to live and survive.” In the cadenced motion of bodies, especially those taut young torsos and limbs, tanned by the sun and toned by their efforts, the film finds genuine loveliness as well as persistent despair.
Looking up at Beltran’s 25-year-old son Fortunato, the shot is both elegiac and critical. If he is strong and admirable, his future stretches beyond him, constrained by more of the same. As his brother Tonico bends to work, the narrator observes he “is the youngest and this will be the sole memory of his childhood.” Araya resists categories, leans forward while looking back. Here past and future collapse, along with poetry and poverty, documentary and invention. Reimagined here, Araya is at once endless and utterly finite.