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Interview: Margot Benacerraf (Araya)

“Unfortunately time would vindicate me. Not everything has been beneficial for the people of Araya.”

Venezuelan director Margot Benacerraf may have only made two films, the 1950s documentaries Reveron and Araya, but her efforts in supporting great Latin American cinema over the past 45 years has made her a national treasure in Venezuela, and in 1990, Araya, depicting the day to day lives of salt miners on a Venezuelan peninsula, had been chosen as one of the five best films in the history of Latin American cinema by the Neighborhood Film/Video Project of Philadelphia. Largely forgotten due to lack of distribution, Araya was stunningly restored for its 50th anniversary, re-released by Milestone films, and enjoying an October run at the IFC Center in NYC. Joining the ranks of other lost documentary classics like I Am Cuba and Killer of Sheep, it is a hidden gem that was not only an early documentary, but subverted its format to be more of a narrative film, to blend reality and drama together, and it was a brilliantly innovative piece of work in 1959, sharing a top prize with Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour at the Cannes Film Festival.

Araya, rather than being a dry documentary, follows the style of poetic realism, using a classic film score, staged scenes, established characters, and a direction to display the rare and beautiful world of Araya, a land on the cusp of industrialization, where families are connected through the many generations who have worked for over 450 years. Benacerraf displays a masterful eye for balancing truth with cinematic narrative, gaining the trust of the island’s families and being receptive to the story she wanted to tell, of a land hard and tough, yet with blinding white beauty in its salt pyramids, the strength and grace in its people’s work routines, and the love and respect shared amongst the families.

I got a chance to interview Benacerraf via email this week about her filming of Araya, early years in Paris as a filmmaker, the scene of female filmmakers in the 1950s, and the contemporary state of Latin American cinema.

Margot Benacerraf (Araya) Interview

Melissa Silvestri: Was it difficult to gain the trust of the salt miners, or were they naturally at ease in front of a camera?
Margot Benacerraf: No, because I went several times before shooting share their lives, and become familiar to each other. So when I start shooting they didn’t ran away and they accepted willingly and patiently the directions I gave them. They had never seen cameras around and they didn’t know exactly what was all about. They just trust me. And think that every shot in the film is directed!

MS: Araya seems to be from another time and place altogether, pastoral communities separated from the mass market industry of the mainstream world, an environment that seems to be growing more rare due to increased industrialization and people moving into cities. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that, if you believe such communities can still thrive without disappearing altogether due to pressures from the mainstream world.
MB: There shouldn’t be many isolated communities left, and even if there are still any left, they would find it very difficult to resist the exterior pressures of the mainstream world. In any case, it is about, and it will always be about, asking to take into account the human problem before those very violent changes, with all that they bear. In the case of “Araya”, at the end of the film, I couldn’t give it a conclusion before the arrival of the machines because precisely as I was filming on a horse a world that was disappearing, another was beginning. I only had left raising a question with evident anguish because what I had observed nobody else considered to be a human problem. Unfortunately time would vindicate me. Not everything has been beneficial for the people of Araya. 

Margot Benacerraf (Araya) Interview

MS: Post WWII, there was a large boom in young filmmakers who came from all over the world, and creating these innovative films that gave a fresh modernity to filmmaking, whether making social or political statements, or bringing a poetic realism in with nonprofessional actors. You had studied in Paris, and I wanted to know what was it like to have been a part of that environment, and if you saw a great change from the previous generation.
MB: It was very significant to see how in the Cannes Festival of 1959 we matched up without knowing each other and without pre-established agreements with Truffaut and Alain Resnais. We were filmmakers eager to express ourselves differently so we were using new methods of production and looking for new forms to connect with the audience, and that’s why that Festival was so important. One can say that the eruption of the New Wave with all its investment and revolutionary marquee in that prestigious and classic Festival marked a before and after in filmmaking that without a doubt influence that following generations.

MS: Since Latin American cinema is so broad and widespread across many different countries, is there a specific style or genre that you’re attracted to, either as a viewer or a supporter through your work in the cinema?
MB: What is known in literature as “the marvelous reality” or as “magical realism”, of those who Gabriel García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier are the most well-known exponents, and its parallelism in film especially attracts me. I recognize in that vision and in that form of expression one of the more interesting paths and big possibilities for the development of Latin American film.

Margot Benacerraf (Araya) Interview

MS: Were there other women directing at the time you made Araya?
MB: Of that I know few. In the 50s, in France, there was Nicole Vedrés, Yannick Bellon, Agnes Varda, in the United States, there was Maya Deren and Shirley Clarke, and in Mexico, Matilde Landeta.

MS: What was it like to be a female director at a time where there were hardly any other women’s voices out there?
MB: I can’t say that being a woman has made my work difficult. I suffered the general conditions of a country where it was very difficult of make films. In the Venezuela of those times the filmmaking trade was practically unknown. In 1951, when I made my first film “Reverón” it was the only case of a female filmmaker. Later, 2 or 2 male filmmakers came more at the end of the 50s, but the difficulties were continuing to be the same for everyone.

Milestone Films released Araya on Wednesday for a limited run at the IFC Center until the 20th of October. Click here for more details.

[Pics: Top picture Benacerraf with Roberto Rossellini. Bottom Benacerraf with Pablo Picasso.]

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