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Berlinale 2009: "Araya", the conflict between beauty and purpose

With not much making a great impression thus far at the Berlinale, Margot Benacerraf's lovely documentary Araya comes as a breath of fresh air from 1959.  Reminiscent of Agnès Varda's debut film La Pointe-courte (1954) in its artful but somewhat ambivilant attitude towards filming a local community and their work clearly admired by the filmmakers, Benacerraf's film focuses on the inhabitants of Araya, a desolate area in Venezuela subsiding through a long history on the wealth of its great salt marshes.

Araya is a great pleasure to both see and hear, but the angle it takes towards its subject gradually fails to reveal itself.  So while Araya subsides on salt, we can subsibe on beauty—Giuseppe Nisoli's varied camerawork moves at times with that formalized eye of the Varda, Antonioni, and Resnais schools of documentary, distanced and cinematic, and sometimes with startling injections of handheld spontaneity that seem positively contemporary.  The film is structured loosely around the routine work of the day—from the various salt industry workers to the local fishermen who bring the only food the local communities eat—but it dallies between having the sharpness of an essay film, rhythmic with organization, and the languor of tangential asides into families and activities.  In fact, despite an assured, rhetorical narrator who gives the film the flair of the best poetic ethnographies, the mushy structure is indicative of an equally mushy sensibility: it is never quite clear what the filmmakers think of their subject, nor why Araya exists in the first place.

Yet it contains great poetry of images, and, however distanced from an actual material or physical sense of the work of Araya's inhabitants (on film, it is quite difficult to capture the material with the poetic), Benacerraf's film is absolutely gorgeous in its images of the work, of men rhythmically beating salt, dumping salt, cutting salt; of a woman crafting pots, cutting branches, selling fish.  Indeed, aesthetics may very well trump the documentary aspect as well as the subject of Araya, as the sublime look of the salt-cutters boats drifting silently across the empty marsh at day break, or the close-up of the young girl's face as she waits to give her father and her brother their coffee for the day are absolutely exquisite.  Nevertheless, these moments are very nearly—though not quite—unconnected to the existence of these people as people, their work as work, this place as a place.  But, for me, raising these issues within a work of such beauty (and I have not even mentioned Guy Bernard's score, as varied and surprising as Nisoli's camerawork) intrinsically makes the film worthy.  No film is ideologically or artistically perfect, and in fact it may only be the problematic films, the ones that do something right and come close but fail to work themselves out, that are by far the most interesting films of all.

Re: “No film is ideologically or artistically perfect, and in fact it may only be the problematic films, the ones that do something right and come close but fail to work themselves out, that are by far the most interesting films of all.” This, I think, is exactly right. Whenever a film gets called “nearly perfect” (as too many do), I kind of lose interest.
Well redacted, but total out of focus review.

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