Margot Benacerraf’s 1959 documentary of the hardscrabble lives on the peninsula of Araya, a barren desert surround by ocean and salt marshes on the northern reaches of Caribbean Venezuela, is non-fiction filmmaking as poetic realist portrait.
This land, and its unique salt marshes, was discovered and settled by the Spanish in 1500, when salt was as valuable as gold, and abandoned less than a century later, its stone fort left to crumble in the sun and wind and salt air, an unforgiving climate that has rendered the island an inhospitable desert. Yet the “daily ritual of salt” continues unchanged through the centuries, 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. For, as the lyrical narration reminds us like a chorus, “On this land, nothing grows. All comes from the sea.” There is no electricity (and thus no refrigeration) or plumbing, drinking water is trucked in and every resident big enough to haul a basket or pick out the catch from a fishing net is put to work. It is a hard, unforgiving life of grueling, monotonous work, set against a hard beauty of a barren land and a soundtrack of music created by the inhabitants.
Araya is a tone poem, a poetic portrait of an ancient existence in the modern world, with narration (scripted with Pierre Seghers) to match, a kind of blank verse that continually circles a few vivid and evocative motifs. Margot Benacerraf never meant it to be a documentary in the strictest sense. “I decided that I wanted to tell this story, but not as documentary in the contemporaneous sense of the word,” she explained in an interview years later. “I wanted to employ a more poetic mode, a narrative shaped by scripted rather than spontaneous action, a fictionalized documentary if you will, the flip side of the Italian neo-realist style which had enjoyed such prominence during the decade.”