Day 16: ARAYA (Margot Benacerraf, Venezuela, 1959)
This lyrical documentary, directed by Venezuelan feminist filmmaker Margot Benacerraf, shared the Cannes International Critics Prize with Hiroshima mon amour in 1959. But while Resnais’s film would be immediately hailed as cinematic landmark that changed the course of cinema, Benacerraf’s film never received widespread distribution, and was subsequently forgotten. Happily, a gorgeous restoration appeared in 2009 to commemorate the film’s 50th anniversary, and today we can properly appreciate this mesmerizing examination of a way of life that was disappearing even at the very moment of the film being made. The film depicts the grueling lives of people who extract salt from the ocean off of the Araya peninsula of Venezuela, documenting the backbreaking traditional labor methods that were passed from one generation to the next, over the course of 400+ years. And it would be one thing if only the labor itself was punishing; what Benacerraf’s camera documents, however, is that every facet of life for these people involves gargantuan effort—water must be shipped in each morning to the village, brought bucket-to-bucket to each house, fish caught daily (hopefully providing enough to feed the local population) as no vegetation grows in the region, etc, etc. The families are enormous—one specifically mentioned is 16 and counting—because even the most basic aspects of daily life require a manual task that has to be undertaken, day after day after day.
The toil and strain on display is in direct tension with the sheer beauty of the film’s images, the arid desert and salt mountains immaculately framed like proto-Antonionian landscapes, throwing into sharp, rather noble relief the people themselves. But rather disquietingly they never speak, silent (or silenced by?) a poetic voiceover emphasizing the sheer repetitiousness of this way of life, from the gestures of work to the strict scheduling of each day. Which leads directly to the underlying, rather disquieting ambivalence of the film, the crux that each viewer must contend with: despite the great splendor evoked by the images and commentary, IS it a way of life that should be glorified, let alone maintained? Or is this the rare situation where modernity’s displacement of an indigenous culture might actually be a genuine improvement for everyone involved? The film itself refuses to provide any answers. Indeed, Benacerraf has claimed she wasn’t attempting a documentary at all, but rather intended to make a cinematic “tone poem” as a testament to this particular place and the people who daily contend with it. I’m not sure if I’m satisfied with such a neat evasion, for just as it is with Hiroshima mon amour, it would be easy—too easy—to simply get carried away by the magisterial aura evoked by the sensuous interplay of image and sound, and ignore the complex dissonance of ideas and implications churning just beneath the surface. But however one feels, this is an unjustly neglected landmark, and it deserves to finally find an appreciative audience after all these years.
[Watch Araya on Fandor here.]
Day 12: THE TIES THAT BIND (Su Friedrich, USA, 1985)
A long overdue first viewing of a crucial touchstone of avant-garde, documentary, and feminist filmmaking. On the most obvious level it’s an intimate and emotionally searing cross-examination of the director’s mother regarding her experiences growing up in an anti-Nazi family during the Second World War, but a number of related issues quickly begin to intersect the main narrative, including the director’s own work as an anti-nuclear activist and, more implicitly, the complex networks of emotions that bind mother to daughter, parent to child, and one generation to another. The mother’s story is moving in and of itself and could easily have justified a straightforward Q&A-style documentary film, but Friedrich is interested in undertaking a slightly different project, utilizing a variety of experimental techniques that mimic not only the fragmentation of memory but of perception itself—even as the soundtrack is dominated by her voice, the mother is seen onscreen only in flashes. As the conversation continues the questions seem increasingly difficult to answer (for example, she came from the same town as the Scholl siblings and knew of them, but she never herself joined the White Rose group despite experiencing hardship, including spending time at a forced labor camp, for her own anti-Nazi views. There’s an ambiguous timbre—regret? sadness? shame? reproach?—to her voice as she acknowledges she was unwilling to take that step toward a more active resistance, and that despite her own suffering there were others endured so much more).
Friedrich admirably navigates a kind of high-wire act, never pushing a personal agenda of either exoneration or condemnation, instead forcing the viewer to make their own moral and ethical judgments with each new piece of information that is presented. This develops what was for me the film’s greatest accomplishment: invoking the psychic binds of ethnicity and heritage. For those such as myself with German ancestry the film becomes increasingly uncomfortable as it forces a kind of reckoning of… what? Guilt? Embarrassment? A sense of inherited culpability? I’m not even sure—I’m still trying to come to terms with what this film made me feel. The moment when her mother admits that she will regret that she is German until the day she dies was startling—but also chillingly familiar too. Fandor carries a number of Friedrich’s films, and this will probably not be the only film of hers I end up watching for this project.
[Watch The Ties That Bind on Fandor here.]
Day 6: FATA MORGANA (Werner Herzog, Germany, 1971)
Yesterday was Herzog’s 74th birthday so it seemed only appropriate to commemorate by picking a selection from his vast body of work. This is, by nearly all accounts, something of an outlier in a filmography that already likes to keep to the peripheries, a pseudo-documentary/speculative essay film that in typical Herzogian fashion whirls about in unexpected and often perplexing directions. For me the central conceit of the “fata morgana”—a specific type of mirage where edifices seem to emerge upon the horizon—immediately became crucial in keeping me engaged: if moment-to-moment I couldn’t quite string together what was going on, I nevertheless found myself entranced by the idiosyncratic manner in which images, sounds, songs, and ideas are compressed into beguiling if elusive configurations. I’m admittedly not much of a partisan of this much-loved filmmaker, and not quite willing to attribute the profundity I’ve seen attributed to this particular experiment either, but it’s undeniably the product of a singular creative vision. If I’m being honest, I most appreciated the opportunity to hear the great Lotte Eisner’s grave, gravelly voice.
[Watch Fata Morgana on Fandor here.]