The first thing that I remembered when watching "Araya," was "I am Cuba," Michael Kalatozov's 1964 epic film, which, coincidentally, is also distributed by Milestone. And the reason was simple, yet powerful: its awesome black and white photography. It just can't escape your eyes; it makes you ask, Why do we tend to ignore films in B&W? But "Araya" is much more than that; it is an altogether cinematic masterpiece that you will never forget, a treasure that was almost forgotten, but rescued by Milestone
Located in a peninsula in the northeastern part of Venezuela, "Araya" is a natural salt mine. The film opens with grandiose shots of clouds, waves, and deserted landscapes, with cactuses and brushes. And then we are taken to a harsh reality, when a voice tells us that, "On this land nothing grew, and all was desolation, wind and sun. All life came from the sea. And from the marriage of sea and sun, salt was born on this land." This same voice (José Ignacio Cabrujas), in its original Spanish, tells us the story of Araya, when the conquistadores arrived from Spain in 1500, and were seduced by the enormous quantities of salt in its beaches, which at that time, we are told, was as expensive as gold. Within some short period, the Spanish built a fortress, from which this richness was exploited, but was abandoned years later. Margot Benacerraf, the director, then takes us forward 480 years, and asks herself. "What happened after the Spanish left?" The rest of the film provides the answer.
Benacerraf then introduces us to the salt-miners, hard-working men and women who extract the "the white gold from the sea" from the salt marshes, which appears to be the only job in town - they work in Araya, but live in the town of Manicuare. The director follows members of some families - all of them involved one way or another in the business - and traces their labor all day long. At the same time, Benacerraf documents life in the town of Rincón, where many, if not all the population, works in fishing activities - from actual fishing, to going selling the product out of town. And this out of town happens to be Manicuare. The filmmaker smartly shows how these two towns are connected and dependent on each other. She rightly concludes, as we do, that, "Beneath this sun, can anyone think of choosing? From Father to Son, you are a fisherman or a salt-miner." She also wonders if this cycle will go on forever.
For some people, it is hard to watch a B&W film from the fifties, especially if it is a documentary. But I can tell you that I could not get my eyes away from the screen. The narrative (Benacerraf) and the photography (Giuseppe Nisoli) are powerful, cinematic poetry at its best. Benacerraf captured the conditions of human beings that had no options, and documents their pain, although you don't hear anybody complaining - that's the only life they know. You have to really love film to embark on an enterprise such as the one that Margot Benacerraf undertook, and we have to thank and congratulate the visionaries in Milestone Film and Video for saving it from oblivion. Not in vain, "Araya" has been named by some as "the most beautiful film ever made in Venezuela." At the time of its release, it won the Cannes Film Festival's International Critics Award and Le Grand Prix de La Commission Superieure Technique. The magnificent DVD edition includes "The Film of her Life: Araya," in which Benacerraf returns to Araya after so many years; "Reveron", Benacerraf's 1953t film; two TV interviews with Benacerraf; two audio commentaries; and much more. (Venezuela/France, 1959, B&W, 82 mins plus additional materials)
Reviewed exclusively by Eric Gonzalez on May 9, 2011 for Milestone Film & Video