Margot Benacerrafs 1959 Araya is a stunningly photographed document of a singular culture. Benacerrafs work of poeticized ethnography begins in the wispy clouds before swooping down on the barren terrain of the titular peninsula, located in northern Venezuela. All was desolation, intones the narrator, but desolation never looked so good. Neither did backbreaking labor. Covering the course of a single day, Benacerraf follows the lives of Arayas inhabitants as they stack massive pyramids of saltthe white gold that is the regions chief resourceagainst the sky, or roam the shantytowns selling fish, while the oozy narration rehashes key phrases (All life comes from the sea) to emphasize the circularity of the subjects existence. Does the film unduly aestheticize poverty? Well, obviously, and never more so than in a repeated image of four bare-chested boys beating salt piles in unison. Still, Benacerraf seems determined to show the human facenot just the chiseled physiqueof this place. ANDREW SCHENKER
Carmen and her grandmother on a trip to the cemetary. A scene from Margot Benacerraf's 1959 documentary/tone poem ARAYA. Courtesy of Milestone Films.