Margot Benacerraf’s Araya: Poetic Realism As Documentary
Margot Benacerraf calls her only feature-length film Araya (1959) poetic realism. Benacerraf documents life on the Araya Peninsula where people have harvested salt marshes for five-hundred-years. Araya, a northeastern peninsula in Venezuela, was the only toponym on 16th-century maps of the region as its marshes yielded in abundance the most beautiful salt Europeans had seen. Following the daily tasks of different families, Araya is an intergenerational portrait of life on the isolated peninsula.
Araya opens with black and white images of a barren landscape and non-diegetic orchestral music. Slow panning shots reveal the parched vastness of the landscape. The only provenance of life is the sea. The orchestra’s dramatic music is accompanied by a voice-over narration that begins with a genesiacal description: “On this land nothing grew. And all was desolation, wind, and sun. All life came from the sea. And from the marriage of Sea and Sun, Salt was born on this land.” The voice-over prologues the arrival of Spanish conquistadores who colonized the Araya Peninsula in the 1500s when salt was more valuable than gold. The narrator poses an existential question. What has happened to the Araya Peninsula? A panning of the camera reveals formidable salt pyramids where people scramble up and down the angular slopes, carrying baskets of salt like ants transporting leaves to their nests. Their burdensome livelihoods are the residue of exploitive working conditions established by the Spanish Empire and passed down through generations for centuries.
Pereda, Ortiz, and Salazar are three families with different vocations but whose lives are all defined by the ceaseless repetition of work. The Pereda family are nocturnal salt harvesters. The onerous operation of ferrying baskets of salt up the pyramids and running down requires them to work at night. Four Pereda men carry out this task. Fortunado is twenty-five and has helped his father Beltran for fifteen years—fifteen years of sleepless nights have defined his life. Cesar is twelve and will eventually take Fortunado’s position on the line when he replaces his father. Tonico is nine, and salt marshes will be his only childhood memory. The voice-over repeatedly describes the cyclical relationships between the land and its people. The mantra-like narration emphasizes that tomorrow will be like yesterday, which is like centuries before—tiresome repetition endlessly connects the past to the future.
The Pereda’s work ends at ten in the morning when the Salazar family’s day is just starting on the salt-marshes. One family leaves as another arrives. As diurnal workers, the Salazar family harvests salt from the brackish waters and loads these sheets onto wooden barges. Salt is pounded into fragments on the barge and left to dry for a day—the harvested salt from today becomes the salt ferried up the pyramids tomorrow. And the cycle continues. For each basket of salt deposited atop the pyramid, one burlap bag of salt is filled from its base. The shape of the pyramids is static as the amassing of salt is countered by its packaging.
Outside the salt lagoon, the Ortiz family provides the only substance for the different villages by dropping fishing nets at night and hauling them up mid-morning. A successful morning of fishing sets in motion Isabel Ortiz’s day as she carries a basket of fish from village to village, selling to the Pereda and Salazar families. Isabel’s day does not end when she finishes her vending. She must feed her children and salt leftover fish before embarking on an afternoon of wood foraging.
Arresting cinematographic moments embolden the narrative of Araya. The camera focuses on the minutiae of four men swing wooden bats in unison as they pound salt in a sequence of close-up shots. Ankles and feet fill the frame, tendons flexing, heels rising before falling. The transferring of weight from one foot to the next is beautifully rhythmic. As momentum travels through their bodies, the camera moves to frame the long bats as they rise over their heads and swing down, smashing a carpet of salt. The motion is repeated over and over under the pounding afternoon sun. Repeated gestures define the Araya people as they are often portrayed working and seldomly heard talking.
Three families with different work schedules complete a twenty-four-hour cycle. The day transpires and the salt flats are never in solitude. In an interview, director Margot Benacerraf reflects on the unit of a day: “I chose a 24-hour time frame because I have always believed this unit of time gives a dimension of repetition, and it seemed essential to me to emphasize the inherited gestures virtually uninterrupted by the passage of 500 years.” While the documentary unfolds over a day, Benacerraf and Giuseppe Nisoli, her cameraman, took four weeks to shoot footage. Tempering with documenting a day in Araya did not begin with editing four weeks of footage into a day. It began with the script.
Poetry as fabulation emerges in the voice-over narration that presides over the documentary. “I wanted to employ a more poetic mode, a narrative shaped by the script rather than spontaneous action, a fictionalized documentary if you will, the flip side of the Italian neo-realist style,” Benacerraf explains. Interviews are absent in Araya. People do not speak their stories. The monotonous repetition of ideas in the voice-over imitates capitalism, reducing persons to mechanical actions—motions supplant emotions. Technical limitations determined the aural aesthetic of Araya. Benacerraf’s camera was not synched with a recorder, limiting her ability to capture dialogue in situ. Benacerraf filled the gaps in diegetic sounds with orchestral music and an authorial narrator. Its effects deprived her subjects of their subjectivity.
The absence of peoples’ voices evokes an anti-pastoral sentiment as humans become their gestures. Gestures become automated through repetition. There is nothing romantic about rural life when burdensome work is the only means of survival. And fatalism settles in as centuries of repeated gestures predetermine fate.
It is nighttime once again, and the Pereda family has arrived at the salt mine, each member beginning their respective role in harvesting salt. The film’s arch appears to imitate the circularity of life on the Araya Peninsula: the beginning and end, the past and future are at once the same, but then repetition is ruptured. Industrialization arrives abruptly in Araya, breaking five-hundred years of uninterrupted cycles. Benacerraf evokes abruptness by using the mantra narration to occult any prospect of modernization. Benacerraf waits until the last minutes of the documentary before revealing the machinery of industrialization. Machinery that arrived in Araya a few months after Benacerraf completed the majority of her filming.
Benacerraf and Giuseppe Nisoli filmed Araya between the end of the rainy season and dictator Marcos Pérez’s industrialization of the salt mines in 1989. The documentary ends with large machinery effortlessly performing the mechanical actions that Araya people had carried out for generations. Trucks, bulldozers, cranes, and conveyor belts move salt swiftly, sculpting pyramids at new speeds. Araya then becomes a project that documents the final cycles of a way of being, an arduous relationship between people and land, that the onset of industrialization alters. The looming question of how machines will change the lives of those it displaces is a timeless one captured by the poetic realism of Araya.
BENACERRAF, MARGOT, et al. “AN INTERVIEW with MARGOT BENACERRAF: REVERÓN, ARAYA, and the INSTITUTIONALIZATION of CINEMA in VENEZUELA.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 44, no. 3/4, 1992, pp. 51–75, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20687983?seq=15#metadata_info_tab_contents. Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.
Lewinson, Anne. “Revisiting Araya.” Cléo, 23 Apr. 2019, cleojournal.com/2019/04/23/revisiting-araya/. Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.