Araya: Margot Benacerraf’s Groundbreaking Film Restored

Milestone Film has acquired and restored director Margot Benacerraf’s 1959 film Araya. The restoration of this groundbreaking movie will have its world premiere at the 59th Berlinale Forum on February 7 and 14, 2009.

Milestone’s release commemorate the 50th anniversary of the film’s first showing at the 1959 Cannes Film Fest.

Although it shared the Cannes International Critics Prize (with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour), Araya was not picked up for wide distribution.

Over the years, it was rarely shown and was largely forgotten by most of the film world. Milestone’s theatrical premiere and worldwide release in 2009 will give audiences the chance to rediscover Benacerraf — a powerful and distinctive voice in the history of cinema. The filmmaker, who lives in Caracas, hopes to attend the Berlinale if her health permits.

Benacerraf’s film portrays a day in the life of three families living in one of the harshest places on earth — Araya, an arid peninsula in northeastern Venezuela. For 450 years, since its discovery by the Spanish, the region’s salt was manually collected and stacked into glowing white pyramids. Overlooking the area, a 17th-century fortress built to protect against pirate raids stood as a reminder of the days when the mineral was worth as much as gold and great fortunes were made in the salt trade.

Benacerraf captures the grueling work of these salineros in breathtaking high-contrast black-and-white images. Her camera gracefully pans and glides to reveal the landscape and the people of the peninsula.  All night, the Pereda family toils in the salt marshes. In the morning, the Salaz clan arrives to load and stack the crystals under the hot brutal sun. Down the coastline, the Ortiz family fish and tend their nets, while the youngest member, Carmen, collects seashells and coral.

When it first premiered. Araya was compared to Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran and Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema. But according to the filmmaker, the film was never meant to be a documentary or a neorealist drama — it was planned as a tone poem — a composition in which cinematography, music, sound and language combined to create a moving and magical exploration of a desolate place and the remarkable people who lived there. Araya is a film of such lasting beauty that Jean Renoir told Benacerraf, “Above all, don’t cut a single image!”

Dennis Doros, Milestone’s co-founder says that “Araya is one of our most exciting discoveries, on par with our earlier treasure, I Am Cuba with which it shares many qualities, including stunning richness of image, sheer poetry of sound and visuals, and a profound respect for ‘ordinary’ people. And like I Am Cuba, we believe that Araya will have a profound influence on the next generation of filmmakers.”

An acclaimed pioneer feminist filmmaker, Benacerraf has been an important inspiration and mentor to Latin-American artists, writers and filmmakers. After her films jumpstarted international interest in Latin American cinema she went on to found Venezuela’s Cineteca Nacional and Fundavisual Latina — restoring films and screening cinema from around the world.

Milestone restored Araya from the original 35mm materials long archived in Paris, with the help of the experts at Fotokem, Pro-tek, DJ Audio, Audio Mechanics and Modern Videofilm.

This is the third year Milestone has had a film selected for the Berlinale Forum following Charles Burnett’s KILLER OF SHEEP and Kent Mackenzie’s THE EXILES.