It requires no critical legerdemain to assert that the tension between observer and subject is central to the success of documentary films—and not, necessarily, the relief of that tension, but how it’s applied to create a useful synthesis of stimuli (the “raw” event) and specialized perspective (the opinionated movement of the camera, or voiceover narration, etc.). Unsurprisingly, there’s an abundance of documentaries that succeed in spite of the prosaic arguments they appear to be making via mise-en-scène and editing, because, regardless of their inane rhetorical thrust, they show us a part of life we’ve never before witnessed; suffering directorial error becomes an act of dutiful humanism.
Much more rare, however, are films that achieve greatness as a result of the unsettling friction between the action in front of the camera and the artistic mind behind it. And yet it’s this uneven relationship that makes Araya one of the most affectingly lyrical films of its kind. A recently restored documentary from the late 1950s concerning the salt industry at Venezuela’s coastal eastern tip, Araya is an artifactual account of human sweat that aims for pithy sympathy but strikes a far more bewitching bull’s-eye. As with the now defunct manual methods of salt extraction, refinement, and packing that the movie captures, feminist director Margot Benacerraf’s cinematic approach is a wildly granulated mixture of noble savage ideology and new world machination; while her cameras seem possessed with a ravenous desire to remain mobile, as though they were only allowed a single attempt to render the trail of acid tears Arayan citizens tread day after day, her canny narration is tantalizingly unsure of how it feels toward the volunteer slave labor it iterates.
From the get-go, Benacerraf depicts the salt trade practitioners as nearly phantasmagoric; isolated from the remainder of South America, the arid landscape of the Arayan peninsula is fit for only the most resilient and opportunistic of life forms, and as the narration repeats endlessly in an effort to carve a direct path from Darwin to the salt pyramids we see chiseled, sunburned bodies forming grain by grain, “All life comes from the sea.” In the positively trippy opening we hear a brief history of the universe against footage of primordial tide pools while primitive, Joe Meek-like synthesizers modulate on the soundtrack to accent inappropriately sharp pans and tilts: It’s like an unkempt hybrid of the hypnotic, lava-lampish images of Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou’s Genesis and the trashy sci-fi zeal of Jack Arnold’s Tarantula. When the tanned limbs and torsos of the peninsula’s inhabitants finally emerge on the screen, they seem to have spontaneously congealed, as though they’re specters haunting the sun-stroked tourists of the Araya Fortress—a massive fortification built by conquistadors in the 1500s to dissuade pirates from purloining precious salt deposits. We follow these anonymously indigenous bodies through a full 24-hour encapsulation of various quotidian tasks, first the brutality of the salt industry (the repetition of which we are reminded of not only by the deliberate shuttling of similar images but by the narrator’s superfluous, David Byrne-esque “Same as it ever was” mantras), then a small community of fishermen nearby who supply the bulk of Araya’s food, and finally the sleepy afternoons that offer the workers and their progeny (who also toil in the salt and sea trade) brief moments of relaxation.
But the unearthly exposition, and the unique spell it casts, also solidifies the mysterious confusion at the heart of Benacerraf’s project, which becomes most nettling at the film’s violently arbitrary ending. If the world of Araya and its peoples are a blinding Fata Morgana, then why urge us, even subtly, toward pity? The flourishes of “human interest” throughout the film seem to be attempting to argue, in a roundabout way, that Araya could use labor unions and/or some relief from U.S. Aid—most memorably, every time we watch a child pumping its tiny, bare legs up a salt pyramid we’re reminded of the mineral’s corrosive properties, which have been known to irreparably damage skin. But the calm male voice that describes this, the timbre of which reminds one of imperative Spanish language announcements at Disneyland, seems to view the blistered feet of the Arayan people as a noble distinguishing feature, or even a protective indicator of endurance: Benacerraf feels for the plight of these individuals but also recognizes in them a fascinating and inspiring, as well as surreal, survivalism. This paradox implodes in the final scene, where the industrial revolution finally reaches Araya and the once peaceful landscape becomes cluttered with the belching diesel smokestacks of tractors and cranes. Yes, these machines will make the lives of the pitiful peons a bit easier and more efficient, but convenience (and, arguably, mercy) has required the sacrifice of situations that yield remarkable, and eternally returning, images—much like the infinite, cinema-inspired loop of heartbreak and betrayal flickeringly projected in Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel.
Ultimately, Araya is a singular achievement because of its poetic management of images. Benacerraf’s views toward the socio-political implications at stake are often bewilderingly recondite, but her unforgettable shots seduce us into a mindless, oneiric lull. Wild peccaries run through an obstacle course of sweating workers; an infant shrieks and yanks its mother’s areola from the thin cloth that covers it; a patriarch stands triumphantly at the apex of a salt pyramid he and his family have spent all morning erecting and tops it with a flag bearing his clan’s assigned number; teenage boys rhythmically beat a collection of fish through a pillar of salt with wooden planks to preserve the surplus from the day’s catch; a man listlessly chews at a fish’s carcass while his wife methodically forms pottery behind him and a proud, speckled cock watches guard at the window; and an elderly woman kneels before a seaside grave and places honorific shells upon the calcified coral sprouting beside rows of crosses. By the film’s close, we’re as smitten as Benacerraf with this barren microcosm of arcane travail—and aren’t sure if we would halt the half-a-century-old routine of salt mining for the sake of human comfort either.