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Saturday, July 12, 2014

ARAYA (1959)

Margot Benacerraf’s nearly forgotten documentary on the Araya Venezuelan salt marshes, and the locals who have ‘farmed’ them for centuries, has been rediscovered & restored for our amazement. In beautifully shot, stunningly composed monochrome, the sheer drudgery of the task (like ants working at small, repetitive tasks that fit into a larger design) is like finding a lost relic of an ancient world still functioning. The salt work begins for the men when they are still children while the labor intensive process starts by ‘cutting’ salt blocks from the floor of the marsh; followed by a series of carting, stacking, and rinsing, until they are piled up into enormous pure white saline pyramids. Living on arid land where nothing will grow, the men choose salt work or fishing in the sea, though generally follow what their fathers have done. The women of Araya run the home, care for the children, sell surplus fish in nearby towns, and cart fresh water home from visiting tanker trucks. A never-ending cycle . . . or appeared so at the time. Remarkable as this is to see, Benacerraf overloads on proletariat clichés with a narration that sounds like a parody of Hemingway in OLD MAN AND THE SEA mode, Man subduing Nature with such simple, honest labor, you half expect to spot a photog from Soviet Life Magazine standing just out of frame. And the younger salt loaders wind up looking so fit (and erotic - see poster), the film starts to feel uncomfortably like a ethnographic subject for Leni Riefenstahl (from her African studies) merged with her mythological OLYMPIA/’38 prologue, leaving a most unpleasant aftertaste.

DOUBLE-BILL: Savor ARAYA’s powerful images, then rinse off any salty residue with Albert Lamorisse’s WHITE MANE/’53, a boy-and-his-horse fable set in a similar environment.

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