A child of about six walks along the beach of Araya. She stops occasionally to gather seashells, a clutch of dead, swollen fish grasped in one hand. We are told that her only playthings come from the sea; because the older members of her family are continually at work, she plays alone. On this isolated peninsula in eastern Venezuela, villagers subsist on harvests of salt from the marshes and fish from the sea, while the wealth produced by the once-costly, still-essential resource that is salt is redeemed far from the impoverished villages of the region.
Margot Benacerraf was so captivated by the salt-ridden strangeness of the area that, despite having already found the other settings for a proposed three-part examination of the topography of Venezuela, she abandoned that work to shoot on this rarely-heard-of part of the Caribbean coast. The resulting feature, one of only two made by the director, who went on to become a leading administrator of Venezuelan cinema, shared the International Film Critics Award with Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour at Cannes in 1959. Araya is a restrained study of sensual experience in which Benacerraf and cameraman Guiseppe Nisoli deftly capture their subjects’ existence suspended between air, salt, and sea.
Benacerraf scripts three families into the film; the Peredas and Salazars spend their days handling salt from the marshes of the peninsula, while the Ortiz family fishes the surrounding waters. The households are living representations of four and a half centuries of fishermen and salineros, physically beset upon and physiologically determined by their surroundings. Choosing to limit the film to the examination of a single day, Benacerraf emphasizes the ceaseless gestures that, even in the mid-twentieth century, were the basis of this vestige of pre-industrial salt production. Almost all of Araya is given to endlessly repeated motion. Many of the salineros’ labors are themselves repetitive, while the director examines actions from numerous angles to better appreciate the physicality of her peasant subjects. Phrases and images are also reiterated as the daily work cycle unfolds. “On this land nothing grew”, the film opens, a few minutes later offering us the observation that “all life came from the sea”. These lines are later repeated in the present tense, situating the peasants of Araya in a grandiose narrative.
The whole of the narration is similarly weighty, but this work was never meant to be conversational. Araya is hardly a documentary in the contemporary sense; it is often described as a tone poem, combining statements and sound with directed scenes of actual villagers. Like Robert Flaherty, Benacerraf tries to achieve truthfulness by not limiting Araya to factual accuracy, and the fact that the film’s family members aren’t really related to each other does not detract from the honesty of the work. Sounds have been manipulated to catch us off guard by, for instance, eliminating human noise so that all that can be heard in a scene set on land is the ocean. The director, with her crew of one, also recorded the sea backwards for haunting effect. This background accompaniment, together with the sparseness of the film’s chalky black and white images, creates onscreen impressions which convey physical sensation without emotion. Like the worker that contemplates leaving his village but cannot imagine life elsewhere, we experience tiredness without weariness of spirit.
The salt of the salineros has not been refined into familiar granules. It is gathered in slabs that are broken, washed, and dried throughout the day and night before being offloaded as coarse clumps into great pyramids, awaiting barges from the outside economy. Viewers can easily forget that salt is necessary for the body within a few minutes of seeing the salted wounds and ulcer-inducing overexposure to salt that the villagers endure. In one almost-overwhelming shot, the Ortiz family squats on ground thick with salt, salting fish that they will later consume. Because of the heat, even food has to be salted. While the peasants’ acclimatization to their environment attests to the great- ness of human tenacity, it is also a reminder of the ease of our own surroundings.
In Araya, Benacerraf dignifies the livelihoods of salineros without sentimentalizing their grueling existence. Within half a year of her first visit to the area, salt extraction would become completely mechanized. This documentary poem, which the director hurried to shoot in the weeks before the machines came, is therefore also an ethnography of ancient salt-mining culture captured at the last possible moment. Despite its critical acclaim at Cannes and in following decades, Araya did not achieve wide distribution until Milestone Pictures undertook its restoration last year. Araya premiered in the United States in New York in October. We are pleased to bring it to our patrons, in its Chicago premiere, this January. 35mm, not on DVD. JY
Doc Films is proud to present the final programs in the Critical Mass screening series, a comprehensive retrospective of Hollis Frampton’s film work that began in Chicago this past October. Previous screenings were held at the Film Center, Block Cinema, Chicago Filmmakers, and White Light Cinema. A concluding symposium, led by Professor Tom Gunning, will convene the weekend of February 5-7 at the University of Chicago Film Studies Center.
Friday, January 22: Hapax Legomena (complete series); 16mm, not on DVD.
Nostalgia (1973); Poetic Justice (1972); Critical Mass (1971); Traveling Matte (1971); Ordinary Matter (1972); Remote Control (1972); Special Effects (1972)
Saturday, January 23: Fragments from Magellan (complete series); 16mm, not on DVD.
Yellow Springs (Vanishing Point: #1) (1972); Straits of Magellan: Drafts & Fragments (1974); Pas de Trois (1975, 4 min.); Otherwise Unexplained Fires (1976); Not the First Time (1976); For Georgia O’Keeffe (1976); Quaternion (1976); Procession (1976); More Than Meets the Eye (1979); Gloria! (1979)
Originally produced by vaudeville duo Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson as a long-running Broadway revue, Hellzapoppin’ is unlike any other film from the period, featuring an indescribably absurd barrage of gags, musical numbers, and special effects — which even includes a descent into Hell. Ostensibly about an aspiring scriptwriter played by a pre-Stooges Shemp Howard, the film largely eschews narrative in favor of an endless stream of self-reflexivity, continuously shattering the fourth wall.
Ivan Brunetti, a graduate of the University of Chicago, is an acclaimed comic artist best known for his series Schizo and Ho!: The Morally Questionable Cartoons of Ivan Brunetti. He has also written an instruction manual, Cartoon: Philosophy and Practice, and edited two volumes of An Anthology of Graphics Fiction, Cartoons, and True Stories (Yale University Press). His drawings occasionally appear in The New Yorker, as well as a host of other publications.
This 1920 silent depicts the height of racial tensions in the time of Jim Crow through the story of Sylvia, an African-American woman, and her attempts to raise money for a local school. Director Oscar Micheaux was one of the first African-American feature filmmakers; this is his earliest surviving feature.
“The film is called RR, but I like to call it ‘Railroad,’ because RR sounds like a pirate movie.” A tribute to American freight infrastructure, an homage to the glorified visions of rail in the 20th century, and an embodiment of 21st century concerns about consumption, James Benning’s new feature consists in forty-three long takes of trains passing through frames at varying speeds. Encompassing towns and cities, oceans and rivers, mountains and deserts, salt flats and cornfields, the whole is a magnificent portrait of America’s landscapes that firmly secures its creator’s place as one of this country’s preeminent filmmakers. 16mm, not on DVD.