In 1973, Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genovés set out to test the human race’s capacity for violence when he placed six women and five men in the pressure-cooker quarters of a large raft and set them on a journey across the Atlantic. Forty-five years later — and five years after Genovés’ death — Swedish director Marcus Lindeen has made a documentary about this project. One can see all kinds of parallels in Genovés’ ideas that don’t have much to do with legitimate scientific inquiry, from the religious cults formed in the late 1960s and early ‘70s to the way contemporary reality TV shows manipulate their participants by isolating them and using other means to amp up the drama. (He set the stage for “Big Brother.”) Startlingly, the events of “The Raft” come to an optimistic conclusion about human nature. Genovés looks much worse than the people he tried to use.
Genovés was initially inspired by his experience briefly being taken hostage, which led to a fascination with violence and the roots of conflict. Mexican actor Daniel Gimenéz Cacho delivers a voice-over as Genovés in English. A very diverse crew Genovés gathered from around the world set sail on the Acali from the coast of Spain. They slept side by side and used the ocean as their toilet. Genovés tried manipulating them, mostly sexually, and brought a priest onboard as a taunt. He expected an African-American woman, Fé Seymour, to wind up sleeping with an Angolan, the only black man on the Acali, for reasons explicable only by racism. He didn’t allow the crew to bring any books and wanted them to pass the time singing and telling stories to each other. The raft faced potential danger from other vessels and bad weather.
Lindeen reunited the seven surviving Acali passengers (all but one of them female), He had a set representing the raft’s exact dimensions constructed on a Swedish black soundstage. “The Raft” films its passengers, now in their 60s and 70s, and has them interact with each other, reflecting on their past experience. It avoids conventional interviews. Fortunately for Lindeen’s purposes, extensive silent 16mm archival footage of the original passage was filmed, so we get to see their appearance and behavior at the time of the voyage.
“The Raft” doesn’t literally re-enact the voyage or have anyone roleplay the past straightforwardly. Instead, it recognizes the impossibility of repeating that experience — that’s very clear from the difference between the way the raft looks then in the sea and now on a set, even if it’s an exact replica — but suggests the value of trying to bridge the past and present.
“The Raft” doesn’t push its larger context home. Genovés started from his own unfortunate experience and announced the Acali experiment with seemingly noble intentions yet proceeded in a way that sabotaged them. That’s a telling point about arrogant entitlement bigger than just one man. The more we learn about the way the Acali passengers were selected, the clearer it is that they were chosen in a method geared for maximum provocation. How could the project discover the truth about human nature when the goal seems to be orgies, racism, and, possibly, violence?
British critic Kevin Maher wrote that “the crushing disappointment of the film is that nothing really happens.” His definition of “nothing’ is rather limited, but the way “The Raft” defies easy misanthropy and “Lord of the Flies”-inspired notions about human nature is actually the least disappointing thing about it. The mayhem that Genovés expected didn’t transpire. If the media called the Acali “the sex raft,” it didn’t live up to their hype. Placed into a stressful situation, the Acali’s passengers kept the peace quite well, with Genovés eventually realizing that he was the only person onboard who was finding the experience extremely difficult.
Lindeen creates a productive tension between the differing texture of the past and present. If the images of the past are real (and shown in degraded film footage), those of the present are stylized to the point of looking like experimental theater. His ability to talk to the venture’s surviving participants allows him to create a dialogue with film of their past. If the Acali’s voyage was an experiment that happily failed the expectations of its creator, “The Raft” brings the hybrid documentary back from festival cinema cliché.
THE RAFT | Directed by Marcus Lindeen | Metrograph Pictures | In English and various languages with subtitles | Opens Jun. 7 | Metrograph, 7 Ludlow St. btwn. Canal & Hester Sts. | Metrograph.com