Reimagined here, Araya is at once endless and utterly finite.


Director: Margot Benacerraf
Cast: José Ignacio Cabrujas (Narrator)
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Milestone Films
Year: 1959
US date: 2009-10-07 (Limited release)
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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.