Margot Benacerraf on ARAYA, Documentaries and the Sun as a Protagonist

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margot benaMilestone Films’ restoration of Margot Benacerraf’s Araya commemorates the 50th anniversary of the film’s first showing at the Cannes Film Festival, where it shared the Cannes International Critics Prize with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Despite the shared win, Araya never received widespread distribution. Nevertheless, director Margot Benacerraf, now in her 80s, is a legendary figure in world cinema. Although she’s made very few films, her work is compared to that of Robert Flaherty, Luchino Visconti and other better-known masters of cinema.

Benacerraf’s film portrays a day in the life of three families living in one of the harshest places on earth. Araya, an isolated and arid peninsula in northeastern Venezuela, where for 450 years following its discovery by the Spanish, the region’s salt was manually collected and stacked into glowing white pyramids.

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Overlooking the stark landscape, the 17th-century fortress that was built to withstand pirate raids is a reminder of the days when salt was as valuable as gold, and great fortunes were made from the grueling labor of ‘salineros‘ salt workers who toiled in sweltering heat beneath a scorching sun. In stunning high-contrast black and white images, Araya captures the harsh landscape and shows a single day in the lives of three hard-working families: the Peredas toil in the salt marshes by night, the Salaz clan arrives at dawn to load and stack the crystals and, down the coastline, the Ortiz family set and tend their fish nets. As a recent conversation with Benacerref’s approach to making Araya was unique, and the result is a fascinating mixture of poetic, narrative and documentary elements in a film that defies genres and has withstood the test of time to become an authentic document in its own right, one that shows the clash between a traditional culture and modern mechanisms of change.

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MERIN: Congratulations on the restoration of Araya and the fact that it‘s finally getting a release in the U.S. You must be very gratified…

BENACERRAF: I’m very excited, and I’m also very anxious because so many years have gone past since I’ve seen it. Imagine! It was in 1959 — that’s exactly 50 years ago that it premiered at Cannes, and won the International Critics Award with Hiroshima Mon Amour, by Alain Renais.

I think it’s extraordinary that I can see all of this happening now.

MERIN: Yes, it’s great. And you seem to have a synchronicity with Alain Renais, who’s just directed a new film, Wild Grass, and is also now in New York for a short time.

BENACERRAF: Oh, I like him very much and we shared the prize together…

MERIN: Yes, I know, that’s why I mentioned him. But tell me, how did this second life come about for your film Araya?

arayaBENACERRAF: Well, it was unexpected. There has been a lot of confusion about the film, because it’s not so easy to classify. It got a lot of attention after the Cannes Film Festival. Well, even before we got the prizes, China and Canada bought it, and then after the prizes most everyone bought it — except for the United States and my own country, Venezuela. They said it was a difficult film — not a documentary, not fiction, but a poetic film — and that’s difficult to classify.

Cannes accepted it in competition at the highest level, with Hiroshima Mon Amour and it didn’t matter if it was fiction or documentary — they said it was a cinematographic revolution, a new way of telling a story that was unique to Venezuela.

MERIN: I’ve seen and heard the film referred to as a documentary, yet you say it’s not. Why is that?

BENACERRAF: It was not intended to be documentary. It was intended to be a poetic film, a poetic statement or a 24-hour saga about the lives of the three families, and how they relate to the land and each other.

MERIN: Did you work from a script? Did you use actors, or the real people who were living on the peninsula?

BENACERRAF: I had a meticulously detailed script that was written after a long period of investigation with the people, and then it was shot very fast, very fast — because the salt mines were disappearing and the new way of getting the salt was coming in. We had to shoot very fast to tell the story of the people that I just love. And, I think their story is so interesting.

MERIN: Did you choose the families before or after you wrote the script?

margo bena with cameraBENACERRAF: Before. The script was based on the families who actually lived there — but I also composed families and relationships. For example, the grandmother and daughter are not really related to each other, and also the lovers, they really hated each other. So the family structure is the same, but I did do some changing. But they are the people who live there, not actors.

MERIN: I think that’s quite unusual, and it interests me because I’m curious about the definition of documentary cinema and how it differs from fiction filmmaking. I think the borders between the genres are blurry…

BENACERRAF: Yes…

MERIN: It’s interesting, for example, that fiction features often use archival footage, and documentaries are using more and more non-verite elements such as graphics, infra red cameras, special effects and entering into still photos as though they’re living environments. And, in a way, you could say that all movies are documents — artifacts, if you will — of their times.

BENACERRAF: Yes, that’s right…

MERIN: And then the director — you — are an artist who takes something you’ve accidentally found in nature or in human society — Araya and the families — and changes it, transforming the accidental encounters into art…

BENACERRAF: Yes, actually you can see that in my script, too. For example, I wrote it so that there is the tight structure with Take 20 and Take 21, and so forth, and they are very specific with everything in detail, but I also left open spaces so when I found something that happened — those accidents — that I hadn’t expected, I could just insert them, find the right place where they would fit and belong.

MERIN: Did you shoot chronologically?

BENACERRAF: No, I would have liked that, but I couldn’t because the sun is terrible…it’s very hot and harsh and brutal. You could work from 5 to 7 AM, when the light was right. Then it got brutal and you had to wait until 3 or 4 in the afternoon to shoot, and then shoot until six, and then the sun goes down very fast. People always ask me about the sunset, if I used time lapse because it was so quick.

But, no, I didn‘t. That was a normal take, and that‘s how fast it went.

Light in the 24 hours cycle was very important to me. I had to give the editor all the right times of the day for the story of the families, to show what each family does. So, the editor has to switch from family to family to keep the right time in the cycle — and it was very difficult to keep that going.

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The sun is a protagonist — it makes everything. You combine it with the wind and water and it makes salt — and it marked what happened day after day, over and over again, for 500 years, every day — until the machines came and everything changed.

That‘s why I had to shoot quickly. I chose to do the 24-hour cycle that happened every day until the day the machine arrives and changes everything. I chose that moment at the end of 500 years, where there is that clash, and you question what’s going to happen. I don‘t know. Will flowers now come through the salt for the dead people of Araya? What is going to happen? There is that question…

MERIN: Yes, and that raises another interesting difference between documentaries and narrative features — that narratives come to a conclusion.

Everything is resolved, and the story is over. But, documentaries present an ongoing issue, and suggest that life goes on without resolution. Your film is documentary-like in that it ends with a question…

BENACERRAF: I couldn’t make a conclusion because I observed that the people who were making the industry didn’t care about the human beings.

That meant that from one family that had six or seven family members working, there would now be only one who was needed, only one who had to work, and he just had to push a button. What would happen to the others. I couldn’t give an answer. That would be dishonest.

MERIN: Was it difficult to shoot in such a remote place?

BENACERRAF: Very difficult.

MERIN: Other than sun, what were the other difficult conditions?

BENACERRAF: First of all, we had limited time because of the sun. Second we didn’t have very good equipment. It was actually very primitive — an Arriflex with battery and little Nagra, and that was it. When we got to Cannes, nobody could believe we were just two persons shooting this film. It was me and my cameraman, Giuseppe Nisoli. And they would ask how did you make this shot or that shot, and I said it was because I asked one of the industry workers who came there to lend me a crane, and I put a platform on the crane and made shot. It was just a matter of finding solutions. My cameraman was wonderful.

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You know, I studied cinema in Paris, and it was very theoretical — they told me don’t do this or that, but I told Guiseppi to do the opposite of the theory. He held the camera, and I was in the salt mine with him — and the salt was burning me. You cant imagine how terrible it was.

MERIN: This is one of just two films you‘ve made…

BENACERRAF: No. I made a third film — of Picasso. I spent a sort of magic summer with him in the south of France. He saw my first film on the Venezuelan painter, Reverón, and he said he wanted to do a film with me. It was a sort of diary, but he kept the film. Then he moved, changed wives, changed houses. The film was lost. One day it will come out.

But for this film, I was thinking of making a different film, a Venezuelan trilogy where one story is on the coast, on in the Andes and one on the plains. I wanted to work with different Venezuelan writers. But I didn’t want to have a typical coast with palms, and one day I was looking at magazine and saw a photograph and said where is that? Nobody knew this place called Araya. I thought it might be the right place and decided to go there to see it.

It was on the coast, in front of Trinidad and you have to take boat and jeep…and I was astonished by the solitude of place and dignity of people. I started to do research there, and it began to take over…

MERIN: So the film became not three parts, but one. You went to investigate and you were hooked.

BENACERRAF: Yes. That’s what happened. But I want to ask you, did you meet Alain Renais?

MERIN: Yes…but why do you ask?

BENACERRAF:
Because it’s interesting that we shared the prize and you mention synchronicity. You know, Araya is al fresco, and Hirsoshima Mon Amour takes place indoors…do you find it amazing that we shared the award at Cannes?

MERIN: Well, the films seem to be in contrast — from the outside. But, actually, I think they’re similar in the intimate way in which they’re shot….

BENACERRAF: You are right. And we had a lot of parallel things going on. We even had the same musician, Guy Bernard. But there’s something more — about my first film. When they wanted to make film about Reverón, they called Alain Renais to do it, but he couldn’t because he was working on another project. And so they chose me to make that film.

I was between my first and second year of cinema studies and they called — I said, “Yes, I know that painter.” He was fascinating to me because he was hallucinogenic. A bit like Gaugin, but he didn’t leave his country, he went deep into it and built a house in a remote place on the coast, and lived there by himself.

I accepted the offer to make the film, and went to his place. We made friends, as I did with the people on Araya, so he was not concerned with the camera. But everything we shot during the day seemed to become diabolic at night — he had giant dolls that hang from the ceiling. At that time, back in ‘50 or ‘51, people thought he was crasy. Three years ago, MOMA made a retrospective of his work. I was looking at the difference between madness and talent, and it was fascinating.

MERIN: You mentioned working with Guy Bernard. What is the importance of music and natural sound for you? Which do you prefer?

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BENACERRAF: Sound is very important to me. And I use everthing — music and natural sound. I mix it. Guy Bernard agreed with me and mixed everything.

Sound must not illustrate the scene. No. I must underscore the image, giving it a poetic quality and depth.

Let me tell you a story — well, two stories — one has to do with Alain Renais.

We were editing [I[Araya in a studio outside of Paris, there was a famous sound engineer who came to work with me after working with another director who was editing a film on the ground floor. I was in the basement. I showed him this image — it was the first moments of earth — and I told him I wanted the sound of earth that cracks open with heat.

When I said that’s what I wanted, he went crazy. “I can‘t do that,” he said. “You‘re crazy. You’re all crazy. Why can‘t you ask me for something normal like music or a door slamming. That man upstairs is crazy, too. He rubbed his hands together and said he that’s what he wants — the sound of skin rubbing on skin….

MERIN: Don’t tell me…it was Alain Renais upstairs, editing Hiroshima Mon Amour.?

BENACERRAF: Yes! And I came to Alain Renais’ defense even if I didn’t know him — because I said that even if someone in the audience doesn’t recognize that sound of skin rubbing on skin, it does have a sound, and you should put it in the track. “No, no, no, no, no,“ he said, “You’re too intellectual.“

But, after Cannes, we won the critics’ prize for cinematography and for sound. Remember the scene in the graveyard? I got the impression that the audience didn‘t feel what was happening there. So, I put eight or ten tracks of the sea to underline that it was a seaside cemetery, so you feel something but are not consciously of it.

MERIN: That’s amazing. Why did you stop making films? After just three?

BENACERRAF: It’s a very complicated story. First, it was because of health, because I paid for my effort. It was three hard years. Then, I had good friends in Venezuela who wanted me to help make a Ministry of Culture. They knew they could count on me. So, congress voted for a Ministry of Culture, and then asked me to become one of its directors. I agreed to do it for one year…but when you start doing something like that, suddenly your realize years have passed. And, that’s why I’ve only made three films.

NOTE: My exclusive interview with Margot Benacerraf first appeared in Documentaries.About.com in 2009.

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