In 1973, anthropologist Santiago Genovés planned a social experiment that predated reality television by decades—put a bunch of attractive young people of various nationalities on a raft called the Acali, sail across the Atlantic Ocean from the Canary Islands to Mexico, and see what happens. His interest, he said, was in investigating what moves people to violence, a question of particular personal concern since he had been a passenger on an airplane that was hijacked and taken to Cuba.
Us old-timers can assure you young people that this venture was not as crazy in the context of the times as it may sound today. For many people, the early 1970s were the age of down with the establishment and up with free love, and also the age of nutso stunts that claimed to be scientific experiments. Like, you know, having one of your undergraduate students raise a chimpanzee as if it were a human child, knowing full well that the animal would become aggressive and territorial as it matured.
Genovés selected five men and six women for his experiment, and documented the whole thing through home movies, a diary, and a collection of visual notes that recorded everything from the phase of the moon to the women’s menstrual cycles (men can be so predictable sometimes). Director Marcus Lindeen was able to track down some of the participants and, combined with archival footage and excerpts from Genovés’ diary (read by Daniel Giménez-Cacho), turned it all into a fascinating documentary that suggests the experiment was not entirely a loss, even if it didn’t turn out exactly as planned.
The tabloid press made much of the sexual possibilities on such a voyage, and couplings did take place—it would be odd if they didn’t, among any group of people confined to close quarters for more than 100 days, and that goes double when they have been selected for attractiveness and are in a context where they mostly wear bathing suits—but not the wild orgies that were suggested by contemporary coverage of the venture. The more interesting story is how the participants became a team despite the incompetence of their leader.
The Raft is most interesting when the survivors (all but one female) are recounting their experiences on the Acali. Each has their own spin on things, but the points of disagreement (and one should bear in mind that the Acali sailed almost 50 years ago) are less important than their shared insights. Production designer Simone Grau Roney created a scale model replica of the ship, and many of these discussions take place on it, which gives you a sense of how small their shared space really was, as well as providing more interesting visuals that if they had simply been filmed sitting around a table.
Genovés, who died in 2013, does not come off well in The Raft. He tended to react badly when someone else on board proved more competent than himself—fixing a broken rudder after he was unable to do so, for instance, or insisting that they take shelter on land in the face of an imminent hurricane. He removed a qualified merchant captain from her post after the hurricane incident, then nearly got everyone killed for a second time in a near miss involving an ocean liner. After that, some of the women discussed throwing him overboard, but that proved unnecessary—instead, Genovés withdrew to his bunk like Achilles sulking in his tent. You might think the survivors are ganging up on someone who is not there to defend himself, except that Genovés came to a similar conclusion in his diary. He thought he would be studying violence in other people, yet found that what he really needed to do was look in the mirror. | Sarah Boslaugh
The Raft is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber. I reviewed it via screening link, so I haven’t seen the extras, but according to the Kino Lorber web site they include a photo gallery and a booklet essay by director Marcus Lindeen.