Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genovés found the inspiration behind his notorious “Peace Project” the day his flight home from a conference on the history of violent behavior was interrupted by a hijacking. Art imitates life, and Marcus Lindeen’s documentary The Raft artfully breathes life — and expressionistic set design — into what could have been yet another round of talking heads roulette.
On the surface, Genovés’s project seemed simple enough: he and ten other passengers (five men and five women) would drift across the Atlantic, from the Canary Islands to Cazumel, on a motorless steel raft dubbed Acali, Nahuatl for “the house on the water.” Was Genovés a scientist using forced isolation in close confines as a means of exploring and possibly curbing human violence, or a perv who proved the media right for dubbing his 101-day floating experiment, the “Sex Raft”? Newspaper ads were placed to assemble a volunteer crew, with Captain Maria Björnstam the only professional sailor in Genovés’s navy. Why was the experiment situated on the high seas and not the middle of the desert? According to Genovés’s log — as read by Daniel Giménez Cacho from the journal that forms the film’s narration — the participants would find it impossible to walk away from an ocean.
Genovés was no stranger to rafting, having been a crew member aboard Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra expedition. He commissioned a custom-built craft fitted with a steel hull that slept eleven uncomfortably. No books were allowed on board; entertainment was limited to singing and swapping stories. Privacy was out of the question. Call it the first unisex bathroom, a netless basketball hoop planked to the side of the raft, with an ocean spray acting as toilet paper.
It was the dawn of modern-day feminism, a time when a woman’s place in society was undergoing a long overdue reevaluation. Eager to stir the pot — Genovés looked to sex as a way of inciting conflict — the women were assigned the more important roles, the men’s contributions less significant. Would the menfolk grow to resent the women in charge and gradually try and usurp power? Yes, just not enough to make it compelling drama. That’s where Lindeen’s expressionistic use of light and color comes in.
The director ordered that a similar barge be built for The Raft, this one made of wood and docked in a soundstage. Seven of the 11 surviving seafaring Guinea pigs reunite to reminisce. Talk of the Acali being a “sex raft” was greatly exaggerated. Genovés enjoyed pitting his participants against each other, asking that they fill out personal questionnaires (“Who would you most like to see kicked off,” etc.), only to then turn around and share the answers with the group. And Genovés’ attempts to play cupid met with limited success; intimacy was at a premium in those tight spaces.
A good portion of the film consisted of footage shot by Genovés during the journey. Were my eyes playing tricks? Motion picture technology has reached the level of sophistication wherein the once easily recognizable manipulation of imagery has become virtually seamless, making it more difficult to discern where optical effects end and plausibility begins. (Or as Trump would call it, fake views.) The first thing I noticed was the widescreen ratio. Filming began in March of 1973, a time when the rental of a 35mm Panavision lens was still considered a luxury. A tugboat would have been needed to tow a Panaflex camera, but not a 16mm Arriflex. And shooting in 16mm ‘Scope was almost as unheard of, as it was grainy. Was Lindeen’s documentary to be taken as being in good faith, or was it an urbane satire along the lines of The Hellstrom Chronicle? This one’s the real deal, technological anomaly and all.
At times, however, I wondered whether this trip was necessary. Ultimately, it was Lindeen’s ability to transform his bare bones replica of a scow into a character that won me over. But there is this overall lack of surprise that hovers over the film. Emotions simmer to the point of mutiny, but never bubble over, with much of the interview footage reminiscent of a Big Brother reunion show.