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A Film Restored, A Director Revered

This month, on the 50th anniversary of its Cannes acclaim, the Venezuelan film “Araya” and its revered director, Margot Benacerraf, stand in the spotlight again as the restored film comes to select theaters.

En español | In 1959, a Venezuelan film called Araya won two awards at the Cannes Film Festival, including the coveted International Critics Prize. A neo-realistic, documentary-like film about the hardscrabble lives of salt miners and fishermen on an impoverished Caribbean peninsula, Araya played at a number of major film festivals and received some commercial distribution, but then faded into relative obscurity—not even shown in its native land until 17 years later.

Araya’s director, Margot Benacerraf, would go on to head Venezuela's National Institute of Culture and Fine Arts and found the first cinematheque in Latin America, the Cinemateca Nacional de Venezuela. During her three years at the helm of the National Institute, Benacerraf, acting as de facto Minister of Culture for her country, brought international theater, dance groups, and art to Venezuela, and played an instrumental role in rescuing historical film footage and extending cultural initiatives to the remote Amazonian region. Despite the fact that Benacerraf directed only two films—besides Araya, the also-acclaimed Reverón—film critics say her work was influential in shaping the work of other Latin American filmmakers, notably Glauber Rocha, a key figure in Brazil’s Cinema Novo movement.

For the 50th anniversary of its Cannes acclaim, Araya, which has not been seen in U.S. theaters for more than 20 years, has been restored to its shimmering black-and-white glory. It opens commercially in New York this month, and will play at selected theaters nationwide through spring 2010.

Now 83, Benacerraf, who divides her time between Caracas and Paris, remains active, currently working on a screenplay about Germans migrating to Venezuela in the 1600s in search of the fabled El Dorado. She was in New York recently to do publicity for her film. In an interview with AARP Segunda Juventud, she shed light on her life, her work, her passions, and, of course, Araya.  

Q. What made you want to make a movie about this desolate land?
A. It was supposed to be part of a trilogy. One film was on the mountains, another on the plains, another on the coastline. I was looking for the coast story, and I saw a picture of those white mountains of salt in a magazine, and that image struck me. I decided to go there. What I saw was so moving—the solitude, it was very strong, very beautiful. I discovered that time had stopped there. So I left the idea of the trilogy and made the story of the coast. I decided to make the film in the tradition of Italian neo-realism, with the people of the place, because no actor can replace those faces; the wind, the sun, and the salt made them special.
Q. Why wasn't the film immediately shown in Latin America?
A. After the film won the prizes in Cannes, it was in all the festivals, and it was bought by different people from all over the world—but not in the Spanish-speaking countries. They thought it was a very difficult film. It was not a documentary; it was a poetic narration. They thought the people were not ready to see the film, it would be difficult for them to understand. It showed in France, but I had the film in a French version from the very beginning, because it had to be [in French] to enter it in Cannes. Many years later, the Venezuelan distributor said, “I want to distribute this film.” I made a Spanish version at that moment. The film was a success in 1977 in Venezuela.
Q. What makes the film relevant today?
A. Every time they show the film, everyone says the same thing: it lasts, it has a contemporary life. And they ask me why, and I say because I put so much love in the film and the people.
Q. What was it like being a female director in the 1950s?
A. I never felt the difference, really, [although] there were very few women [directors] at that time. I did everything with my cameraman, and we worked very well together. He never questioned what I wanted to do.
Q. Why did you stop directing after Araya?
A. I was very sick after I made that film and had two years of bad [health]. Then I [agreed] to be [a] sort of minister of culture in Venezuela. [I wanted] to see the new reality of my country. I left Paris, where I was living, and took that position, and it was fascinating. I founded the Venezuelan Cinemateca, and I did a lot to encourage film in Venezuela. I kept working on cinema, but trying to help other people.
Q. What sparked your interest in cinema?
A. At the very beginning, I was interested in theater, and I won an essay contest to attend Columbia University. I obtained a fellowship for three months to study theater. I used to have a studio downtown with [theater director] Erwin Piscator, and in the lobby was a cinema. He said film and theater work together. Piscator [suggested] I write a script and shoot it; he said, “Cinema has everything you like”—how you frame the film, develop an idea. So I discovered all this work I never imagined, how film can become an art.
Q. What films influenced you then?
A. I could appreciate all the French and Italian films of the postwar. I saw the [Roberto] Rossellini films [Open City, Paisan], [Vittorio] De Sica [The Bicycle Thief]. They impressed me very much. And Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise.
Q. Are there any contemporary directors that you admire?
A. I like very much [Chinese director] Wong Kar-wai and his In the Mood for Love. It’s spectacular the way he managed to work with the image. Here in the United States I like [Steven] Soderbergh very much.
Q. You are recognized as a leading figure in Latin American film. How have you influenced other Latin American filmmakers?
A. Glauber Rocha was a journalist in Cannes when I won the prizes, and he was impressed that a woman alone could make a different sort of film from the Hollywood style. He was enthusiastic. He did a big interview with me. Then a few years later we met again, and he said “Your film impressed [me]; I made Barravento [a 1962 feature about fishermen in an impoverished Brazilian village] thinking that you had the courage to make that sort of film about your country.”
Q. How do you feel about the state of Latin American cinema today?
A. Films in Latin America are growing. It’s very impressive. I’m very optimistic. If you see the festivals, Colombia and Brazil and Argentina and Mexico, there are a lot of young people who want to tell stories and have a new vision of the world. It’s less difficult than when I was [making films] alone, and there are a lot of laws to encourage production.
Q. Araya ends with a new mechanized process for salt production. Have you been back to the region to see what it's like today?
A. I managed to film the end of an era and a beginning: the explosion of industrialization. I [remember thinking], “What is going to happen to these people?” I was in love with the people. I was afraid for them. My anguish was justified. I went back with French TV two years ago. It was terrible. Industrialization did not work as well as they had hoped. The companies are not well-prepared to manage it, and the [plant] works at half capacity. The conditions were hard when I shot the film, but now that they have machines, they are almost all broken.
Q. Any regrets in your life?
A. From time to time I say I should have made another film instead of working so hard to establish the Cinemateca. I dedicated myself to create for other people, and maybe I should have gone back to my specialty. I kept saying, “Next year I’ll do it.” Maybe I should have been more selfish.

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