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by Lewis Beale, AARP VIVA, Fall 2009
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.
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