Featured: Top of Home Page

'Araya': Of the Earth

People, salt and art.


Director: Margot Benacerraf
Cast: Various
Distributor: Milestone
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1959
US DVD release date: 2011-05-17

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.






'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.