Restored 'Araya' Revisits Venezuela's Salt Mines The name Araya may not instantly ring of cinema classic, but 50 years ago Margot Benacerraf's experimental documentary set a new standard in cinematic storytelling. Now, after inspiring a generation of Latin American filmmakers, Benacerraf's tale of Venezuelan salt miners is heading back to the big screen.
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Restored 'Araya' Revisits Venezuela's Salt Mines

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Restored 'Araya' Revisits Venezuela's Salt Mines

Restored 'Araya' Revisits Venezuela's Salt Mines

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

"Araya" is a movie that has long existed more as rumor than as fact. In 1959, at the Cannes Film Festival, it went up against movies that are now classics - movies such as "The 400 Blows" and "Hiroshima Mon Amour." "Araya" still won two prizes. But since then it's rarely been seen. Now a restored version is opening in theaters and coming out on DVD, as Howie Movshovitz of Colorado Public Radio reports.

HOWIE MOVSHOVITZ: "Araya" has been hailed for its influence on international cinema in general and Latin American in documentary film in particular. But director Margot Benacerraf says it's not exactly a documentary.

MARGOT BENACERRAF: "Araya" intends or pretends to be more than a documentary. I shot the film like a fiction film. And I tried a poetic mood to explain and to involve people in the lives of these people of Araya.

MOVSHOVITZ: The film is about three of the many families who mine for salt on a stark, treeless peninsula on the northeast coast of Venezuela.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FILM, "ARAYA")

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

MOVSHOVITZ: Men shovel the salt into large baskets, carry them on their heads to the top of a huge pile, dump them and return for more.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FILM, "ARAYA")

Group: (Foreign language spoken)

MOVSHOVITZ: Benacerraf scripted the film, but the characters were played by local salt miners who've never acted in a movie before. With cinematographer Giuseppe Nisoli, Benacerraf filmed "Araya" in a high contrast black and white to create startling relationships between the sun, the sea, the land and the characters.

BENACERRAF: I could've worked with color, but I didn't want to because I said black and white makes images stronger, dramaticizes and make it more dramatic the story I was telling. Underlining, make it a counterpoint between nature and man.

MOVSHOVITZ: Benacerraf also stylized the sounds. She says that a soundtrack can be like an adjective to the visuals. It can take the audience deep inside the image as it does in a scene at a seaside cemetery. Benacerraf took sea and wind sounds, played them backwards and then mixed them.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FILM, "ARAYA")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOVSHOVITZ: The movie's complex blend of documentary and experimental film caught the eyes and ears of the judges at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, says film scholar Margarita de la Vega-Hurtado.

MARGARITA DE LA VEGA: Her film is really a very good point that hinges between the lyrical documentary, if we can call that way, and the social movement, the social revolution that will come into Latin American cinema a little bit after her work.

When it came out in Cannes, the French and the British and later on in the United States, critics recognized the film as that kind of fusion between the beautiful form and the experimenting of aesthetics with a real search for human beings and for the social meaning of life and interaction between man and nature, man and work. And by man, I mean, human beings. I don't mean just men.

MOVSHOVITZ: This fusion of beauty and social awareness prompted Dennis Doros of Milestone Films to take up the laborious task of restoring and distributing the film.

DENNIS DOROS: Because I'm also the archivist on the film sometimes I see a film 100, 150 times before they end up distribution. And you have to be able to realize that you're going to be looking at this film frame by frame, literally, over the course of months. And that is a primary consideration when we're looking at a film for the first time. Am I going to be able to watch it for 100 times? And this was an easy one to do it with.

MOVSHOVITZ: Some of the most striking shots in "Araya" show cranes and bulldozers taking over the work from the salt miners.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FILM, "ARAYA")

(SOUNDBITE OF BULLDOZERS)

MOVSHOVITZ: Margot Benacerraf filmed an aged woman makes pottery, but in an ancient way without a potters' wheel. For Benacerraf, the experience of filming in the town highlighted the abrupt transition from the medieval world to a modern one that has taken place all over Latin America.

BENACERRAF: We Latin Americans jump from one century, the 16th century, to the 20th century. We saw the evolution. We just had this shock confrontation. And my question at the end of the film is: What's going to help with the human people? Is there going to be a better life for them? And I left that question in the air. What is going to happen?

MOVSHOVITZ: Margot Benacerraf never made another movie after "Araya." She went on to head a number of film and cultural organizations in Venezuela. She returned to the peninsula a few years ago and says she found a ghost town. A few former residents had moved to a nearby village. She says they were simply waiting to die.

For NPR News, I'm Howie Movshovitz.

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