Release Date: Originally screened in Venezuela in 1959; released in the U.S. Oct. 7, 2009 (limited)
Director/ Writer: Margot Benacerraf
Cinematography: Giuseppe Nisoli
Studio/Run Time: Caroni Films, 90 mins.
Why Venezuelan director Margot Benacerraf’s lone film, the 1959 Cannes-winning documentary Araya, has remained unreleased on video for 50 years might never be answered, but its return to cinemas (and DVD) has been a welcome one indeed, with director Steven Soderbergh esteeming that Araya remains “a gift to cineastes.” This sumptuous documentary investigates a peninsula in northeastern Venezuela that the voice-over describes as a “faraway place where flowers refuse to bloom.” Instead, this purgatory between sea and sky bears one of the largest reserves of natural salt. Once as valuable as gold, this land even had a fortress erected around its most precious resource. What Benacerraf trains her eye on though is the innumerable generations of indigenous peoples who must work the salt on land and at sea, even though it bites their feet, stings their eyes, and erodes their bodies. It’s back-breaking work and would make for a tiring viewing experience, but in every frame, Araya finds visual poetry, meditating on such thankless work via breathtaking shots of the landscape and intimate studies of the now-forgotten people who subsist on such bitter salt.