SPOTLIGHT August, 2016: Margot Benacerref, Filmmaker and Cultural Activist

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Auteur filmmaker Margot Benacerraf is in the AWFJ SPOTLIGHT this month to celebrate her 90th birthday on August 14, and to honor her extraordinary career as filmmaker and cultural activist. Benacerref first came to prominence on the international cinema scene in 1959, when her first feature film, Araya, was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, where she was a novice director and the only female filmmaker included in the competition. That year, Araya shared the Cannes International Critics Prize with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour. Read on…

Benacerref’s Filmography

ARAYA posterAraya is a compelling poetic drama that documents the difficult day to day lives of salt mine workers living in the titular town in eastern Venezuela. Shot by Benacerref in black and white, the film reveals the stark high contrast beauty of the landscape and captures the harsh circumstances and life challenges of the film’s protagonists, mostly a cast of non-actors who are playing themselves. Although Araya won international acclaim, the film wasn’t released in the US until 2009, when Milestone Films’ restoration of the film debuted in theaters and on DVD.

Defining Cinema Style and Genre

Araya is a stylistic prelude to current discussions about the hybridization of documentary and narrative films. Benacerref scripted the film and shot out of sequence, but the cast, characters and locations were authentic. The film is referenced by many as a documentary. Benacerref says her intention was not to document the town, but to create a poetic expression of the people and their environs. Yet the film is of record when it comes to the town of Araya and its populous.

Benacerref filming ArayaStill from ArayaStill from Araya
(Above Images, Left to Right: Benacerref Filming Araya; Still from Araya; Still from Araya)

Araya is one of just three films directed by Benacerref, who has said she found the filmmaking process too exhausting to continue with it. Her first two films were art shorts. In 1956, she made Reverón, a documentary illustrating the unusual life and work of the well-known Venezuelan painter Armando Reverón. She subsequently worked on a film with Pablo Picasso, but the project wasn’t finished and its whereabouts remain something of a mystery.

A Lifetime of Cultural Activism

margo head upAlthough she stopped making films, Benacerref’s life has been all about international cinema and filmmakers. Born in Caracas in 1926, of Moroccan Jewish descent, Benacerref studied at the Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) in Paris. After her appearance at Cammes, used her newfound recognition to support and promote cinema in her native Venezuela. She founded the Nacional Film Library in 1966 and was its director for three years consecutively. She was a member of the board of directors of Ateneo de Caracas, and in 1991, with the help of the writer and patron of the Latin American cinema Gabriel García Márquez, created Latin Fundavisual, the foundation in charge of promoting Latin American audio-visual art in Venezuela.

International Honors

Benacerref has received numerous decorations for her cultural activism, including the National Prize of Cinema (1995), the Order Andrés Bello (in two occasions), the Order Simón Bolivar, Order of the Italian Government and the Bernardo O’Higgins Order of the Government of Chile, among others. In February 1987, Ateneo de Caracas inaugurated a Room of Cinema in her name.

Why We Chose to SPOTLIGHT Margot Benacerref

awfjspotlightsmallsmallDespite her international recognition, she has not had the attention and acclaim she deserves in the US. We want to change that and, so, are drawing attention to her accomplishment by shining our August 2016 SPOTLIGHT on Margot Benacerref.

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

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).