In 1959, Venezuelan filmmaker Margot Benacerraf was one of two winners of the International Critics Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for her feature “Araya” – the other was Alain Resnais for “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” Benacerraf was the first Latin American filmmaker to be honored at Cannes.
However, her success was fleeting. “Araya,” a visually striking non-fiction study of the salt miners in the Araya peninsula of northeastern Venezuela, has barely been seen during the past half-century. The film didn’t play in Venezuelan cinemas until 1977, and relatively few Americans caught it when it was part of a touring 1987 retrospective of Latin American films. “Araya” is only now in U.S. theatrical release, in a beautifully restored print, through the distribution auspices of Milestone Film & Video.
"Araya" had its premiere at Cannes in 1959, but it was not theatrically released in Venezuela until 1977. What kept the film out of theaters for two decades?
“Araya,” for it’s own characteristics, has always been a difficult film to distribute even having been awarded numerous times and celebrated in so many festivals. Since the beginning, “Araya” was marked for its particularity. Inside the distributors/exhibitors pre-established categorizations, “Araya” didn’t fit in any genre and it didn’t feature any international stars.
After the enormous and unanimous critical success at Cannes and other festivals, people talked with more formally of “a cinematographic account” of “a grand composition”, of “a painting told with a poetic rhythm”, and so on, “like a poem”, but even so the distributors didn’t go for it in those moments, and later for various and differing reasons the co-producer and I didn’t put in the effort until as soon as the opportunity presented itself in 1977.
When you were shooting the film, how did the salt marsh workers react to having their daily labor captured on camera? And have you ever been contacted by the men and women in the film about the production?
The salt-makers collaborated a lot because I lived with them before filming so that they became familiar with me and the presence of the camera wouldn’t interfere too much with their actions. I should say that they accepted my requests with goodwill and patience. They had never seen a camera and didn’t know exactly what it was all about, but they trusted me. I’ve returned to “Araya” various times during all these years and we’ve always continued maintaining very warm relations.
"Araya" had several U.S. playdates in 1987. What was the reaction by audiences at that time?
Very good, but without any consequence.
Prior to Milestone's release, have you ever been contacted by a U.S. distribution for the film's theatrical release in the American market?
I was contacted by Latin American Video Archive (LAVA) in 2005, but then they ran into economic problems they had to close their doors and cancel all of its activities by the end of that year, “Araya” was referred to Milestone by LAVA’s director Roselly Torres, who was interested in its distribution.
How is "Araya" appreciated today in Venezuela?
For the past 50 years, no other Venezuelan films has had the prestige, nor obtained the prizes that “Araya” has received. With that, I am able to say that in Venezuela it is considered an icon. A little bit ago in the month of May, the 50 years of the Cannes Festival awards were celebrated with the projection in various theaters, and now there will be other projections and other various ceremonies in the country’s universities. - Phil Hall