‘Araya’ – a landmark of poetic nonfiction on Criterion Channel

Araya (Venezuela, 1959), Margot Benacerraf’s 1959 documentary of the hardscrabble lives on the peninsula of Araya, is non-fiction filmmaking as poetic realist portrait.

Araya is a barren desert surround by ocean and salt marshes on the northern reaches of Caribbean Venezuela and was originally settled by the Spanish in 1500. The “daily ritual of salt” on this isolated island continues unchanged through the, carried on by the ancestors of the workers who remained behind (“450 years have passed between its discovery and this breaking dawn”), and Benacerraf profiles the lives of the residents through those rituals as performed by three families from three different villages: the “salineros” cutting, harvesting and hauling the salt into enormous pyramids ready for export, others hauling sustenance from the sea in massive nets and selling surplus in nearby villages and salting the rest.

The film plays out as a “day in the life” and it is a hard, unforgiving life of grueling, monotonous work, set against a hard beauty of a barren land, where the resident live in primitive huts, drinking water is trucked in, and everybody big enough to haul a basket or pick out the catch from a fishing net is put to work. And it ends on the sudden transformation when the modern industrial world arrives in 1959, a startling coda that remakes their lives overnight in a mechanical rumble of trucks and cranes and motor boats on the lagoon.

Araya is a tone poem, a poetic portrait of an ancient existence in the modern world, with narration to match. In the tradition of Robert Flaherty, she captures the rhythms and rituals of their life as if in a dramatic narrative, in beautifully composed images and austere compositions. She makes a point of bringing the wind- and sun-beaten faces of the inhabitants into her lens as she presents the details of their physical labors, unaided by any 20th century technology, with startling clarity.

And while it’s been called a tribute to an ancient way of life, the film—for all the stunning beauty of its images—never romanticizes the hard lives of people living day to day. This new industrial reality hits like an explosion, upending the old rituals overnight, but with it comes the possibility of easing the lives of these isolated peoples. While there is nobility to the people, it has everything to do with their fortitude, not any commitment to preserving an ancient way of life.

The film won awards at the Cannes Film Festival and was celebrated in festivals around the world in 1959, yet it all but disappeared soon after but for sporadic revivals and releases even after it was chosen as one of the five best films in the history of Latin America. The film was finally restored and revived by Milestone in 2009.

Black and white, in Spanish with English subtitles

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Araya [DVD]

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The DVD is gorgeous—Milestone did a superb job in overseeing the film restoration and the digital mastering—and it features interviews with and archival documentaries about the acclaimed director Margot Benacerraf plus her only other film, the 1951 short documentary Reverón, on the Venezuelan artist Armando Reverón. The disc also features alternate French language narration.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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