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D: Margot Benacerraf / 82m

Narrator: José Ignacio Cabrujas

In northeastern Venezuela there is a barren, largely inhospitable peninsula called Araya. Home to a vast salt deposit, the area is harsh and uninviting, but it’s also home to various families that work the salt flats or fish the nearby sea. From the villages of Manicuare and El Rincón, they make a life for themselves that revolves around the collection of salt and fish each and every day, the two items that provide the basis for their community and their reason for being there. It’s hard, labour intensive work that offers little in the way of reward, but has become a generational necessity: for these Venezuelans there’s simply nowhere else to go.

Araya follows three families through the course of an average day. The Salazar family are salineros – salt marsh workers. Their day begins at six in the morning as they take the salt that has been selected overnight and pile it up into huge pyramid-like piles. It’s punishing work that has to be done so early in the day because of how high the temperature rises later. Even so, it’s hot work and the salt crystals can be damaging to the workers’ skin, causing ulcers and open sores. By late morning their work is done and the Salazar family can return home, making the six mile journey to Manicuare on foot beneath the blazing sun. Once there they can tend to work needed to be done at home before going to sleep.

Further along the coastline, the Ortiz family come down to the shoreline to cast their nets out into the sea. Even their youngest, Carmen, has work to do: she collects coral and shells. Once the nets have been retrieved, the fish that has been caught is divided up and some of it is taken to El Rincón and Manicuare for sale to the villagers. The fish is the main ingredient in everyone’s diet, and is rarely passed up.

At night the men of the Pereda family toil in the salt marshes, selecting and cutting blocks of salt for the Salazars and the other salineros to process the next day. Again, it’s hard work as they push their boats through the shallow waters and haul the blocks of salt onto them. And each family repeats the same actions the next day, and the day after that… until industrialisation reaches them, and their skills – handed down from generation to generation – become superseded by machines.

Araya - scene

Although it has the look and feel of a documentary, Araya is intended to be viewed as a tone poem, Cabrujas’ narration deliberately written to evince a feeling not often associated with this type of “exposé” – an appreciation of the lyrical beauty that underpins the lives of the people who live in such a barren corner of the world. As such, and with the benefit of seeing the movie over sixty-five years since it was made, it’s fair to say that Araya works as both a tone poem and a documentary, and is successful whichever way it’s approached.

Part of the movie’s appeal, and one of its main strengths, is that while it celebrates the hard life these families lead, it also presents their lives in such a matter-of-fact way that there’s no room for pity or sentimentality; these people lead their lives in the way that’s portrayed, and they don’t complain about it. Benacerraf is also wise enough to avoid interviewing anyone, and by doing so, she gains more “mileage” out of being an observer than perhaps she would have done by asking a lot of pointed questions. The viewer can see all he or she needs to know about the inhabitants of Araya, as well as the obvious pride they take in the work that they do. As the movie shows more and more of the structured, unchanging lifestyle they lead, it shows how simple and uncomplicated that lifestyle is, and how suited they are to it.

Benacerraf – an acclaimed feminist filmmaker and founder of Venezuela’s Cineteca Nacional, and Fundavisual Latina – also delves into the history of the area, revealing the existence of a 17th century fortress that overlooks the area (but which is now a ruin), and which was built to provide security for the various traders whose cargoes of salt were prey to pirates. It’s difficult to see now just how busy the peninsula must have been despite its unforgiving nature, especially when the viewer sees the nearby wood, where the trees are so denuded that their branches look like withered bones. It’s images such as these, beautifully filmed by Giuseppe Nisoli beneath the blazing, cloud-free canopy of the sky, that highlights the stark, natural beauty of the peninsula.

Whether the camera is following a salinero carrying a basket full of salt on his head, or a member of the Ortiz family sorting through the hundreds of fish that have been caught, or the arrival in El Rincón of the water truck – 1,850 gallons to be shared amongst sixty houses – or the member of the Salazar family, Luisa, who makes clay pots without the benefit of a wheel, Araya is a visual feast, fascinating and poignant and continually astonishing in the way in which the peninsula’s inhabitants have carved out a rewarding way of life for themselves.

When the movie was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959, it shared the Cannes International Critics Prize with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour. And yet it was never picked up for widespread or international distribution, an outcome that seems ludicrous now that Araya has been restored and can be seen for the breathtaking experience it actually is. That it took fifty years for the movie to be recognised for its tremendous accomplishments just goes to show how wrong the movie business can be sometimes. Thank the deity of your choice then that it’s been rescued from obscurity, and can take us back to a time and a place where life – hard, exacting, rewarding life – was lived each day by a group of Venezuelans who were probably unknown to the rest of their country.

Rating: 9/10 – hypnotic, engaging, rich in detail, affecting, beautifully shot, powerful in its simplicity – Araya is all these things and much more beside; with its poetic leanings enhancing the visuals, the movie works on several levels and succeeds on all of them.