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— Greta Garbo, Ninotchka

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Alias: Season Three

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The next time you’re sitting at work feeling sorry for yourself for all the crap you’ve got to put up with, I want you to go home and watch Araya, by director Margot Benacerraf. There you will see some folks who are really working for a living.

An excellent selection of extras really add value
An excellent selection of extras really add value

Shot in 1959 on a costal salt marsh in Venezuela, it is a black and white description of the life in a village of salt miners (or maybe ‘harvesters’ would be a better word), showing what just one day in their lives is like. We are told that this day is like all the days have been for the last 500 years. These people live literally at the edge of the earth in a place where there is little other than the sun, sea and the salt. Nothing edible grows here. Their drinking water has to be brought to them. What food they do get for themselves is fish that they catch in the sea.

Everyone in the village has a job and they all work like draft horses — gathering the salt, piling it into huge warehouse-sized pyramids. Eventually the salt is bagged and trucked away. All the work is done by hand, arm and back. The village works in shifts night and day. Some families work all night, some all day. Each time of day or night has its assigned activity and everyone — man, woman and child — has a task to preform... and it never stops.

This is primarily a visual film and a stunning one at that. There is a spare somewhat breathless narration that is forceful without being preachy. Remember that this is 1959 and Castro is about to revolutionize Cuba and perhaps all of Latin America. Singing the praises of the working class could come easily to Araya. But it’s not clear what kind of economy organizes the workers. Are they being exploited by The Man? Is this a communal endeavor? A niche business handed down for generations? We don’t know. All we see are human cogs toiling stoically on an assembly line of their own making.

The people of Araya have what seemed to me to be a soul-crushing life. Yet they carry themselves with a purposeful dignity that Benacerraf might have glamorized as noble. In fact she gets dangerously close to doing so. But at no time do you ever feel that you’d be a better person if you lived their life. And when it is revealed at the end of the film that this way of life is coming to an end, it is shown both with sadness and relief. The new mechanized salt harvesting will put all but a few of the people out of work. But the animal like drudgery will also end. Yes, to be replaced (for a few) with factory drudgery, but at least it’s out of the sun. The only world that they have known is disappearing and a new world coming.

This is some powerful filmmaking and for me, reminiscent of the opening “gold mine” sequence in Godfrey Reggio’s Powaqqatsi. Indeed the whole attitude of Araya (less the narration) could have come right out of Reggio’s work. It is a view of common people who have through necessity adapted to their land... who are living with it and not on top of it. And it is the way that most people have lived since we stopped chasing our food and started growing it. It is a life of repetitive and manual drudgery. Yet the sense is that everybody understands what they are doing, and why, and thus they have a purpose. They see immediatly what they have accomplished. Their world and their work, hard as it is, still make sense to them. Will they still feel that way in another generation? It would be interesting to see the coming “new world” apart from the brief glimpse we get. Perhaps in a Return to Araya? But Benacerraf never made another film after this one.

The folks at Milestone are really on a roll. They’ve produced DVDs of I Am Cuba, Killer of Sheep, and The Exiles. Now with Araya, they’ve come out with another restored gem. I wonder how it is that these great films get pushed to the back of the shelf and forgotten. These Milestone releases should be films we all know and yet they aren’t. I recently got to see another restored film from Milestone, On The Bowery, and I’m really looking forward to seeing that one on DVD too. Well done Milestone!

DVD Extras

The Milestone release offers an excellent selection of extras that really do add extra value to this DVD:

The Film of Her LIfe: Araya — This is a documentary by Antoine Mora. Benacerraf returns to the salt marsh 50 years later... a must see.

Reveron — This is Benacerraf’s first film. Flashes of filmmaking to come and an excellent benchmark for just how great Araya is.

Audio Commentary by Benacerraf — Well worth seeing the film again just to hear the story of Araya in her own words.

From the Files of Margot Benacerraf — a PDF with collections of still photos.

Picture and Sound

Very good on both counts.

How to Use This DVD

No preparation necessary. Play and be amazed. If you only watch one extra, make it The Film of Her LIfe: Araya.