The Raft was recently screened at the Nordic Panorama just after it premiered at CPH:DOX where it won the main documentary prize. The movie follows the journal of the Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genovés who decided to study violence among humans in what he called «the Acali experiment». Clearly inspired by Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra expedition, in which he was a participant himself, Genovés decides to isolate a group of people on a small raft called the Acali and let them drift over the Atlantic ocean for 101 days hoping to observe the origins of human aggression.
The Sex Raft
Of the hundreds of applicants responding to Genovés’ ad, he made sure to only pick young and sexually attractive people with very different backgrounds, nationalities, religions and social statuses. In order to provoke some male frustration he chose only women for important decision-making roles such as being the captain, the doctor and the professional diver. The men were reduced to mundane tasks like cleaning and cooking for the rest. Would the men slowly try to overpower the «weaker» sex? Would the participants conduct wild sex orgies during the three months of isolation? And who would initiate the first signs of frustration and aggression?
Filmmaker Marcus Lindeen has written a thrilling narration from Genovés’ personal journal that leads us throughout the story:
«I don’t think they realise that this trip will be very dangerous, but as a social anthropologist I need to study them under danger so that they will act upon their instincts. Maria (the captain) is the only professional sailor on board and she knows that the ocean is not going to be a playground.»
«I don’t think they realise that this trip will be very dangerous, but as a social anthropologist I need to study them under danger so that they will act upon their instincts.» – Santiago Genovés
This narration combined with the authentic 16mm film material documenting the whole trip gives us an authentic flashback of the 1973 voyage, but what makes the form of this film truly unique is Lindeen’s reconstruction of the raft in a film studio. He brings an interesting theatrical aspect to the story by inviting the survivors to participate once again. One cannot watch The Raft without becoming curious about Lindeen’s previous works.
The perfect interview
Lindeen started his career as a radio journalist, and later he completed his education as a director at the Dramatiska Institutet in Stockholm. Lindeen’s works show an impressive combination of these two backgrounds. With a deep sensitivity to the spoken word, combined with a mastery of dramaturgy, it seems that Lindeen’s speciality is the art of conversation. This comes forth clearly in his debut Regretters, a movie that consists mainly of a dialogue between two men who regret their sex change operations. What appears to be genuinely amazing conversation between two strangers is actually made up of perfectly reconstructed interviews put together from 15 shooting days.
What appears to be a genuinely amazing conversation between two strangers is actually a result of a highly controlled and manipulated shooting session where the director hired his protagonists as actors and shot the dialogue in a studio for fifteen days spread out over two years. Their conversation is a combination of takes where they talk freely and constructed lines that Lindeen had them refine with the use of multiple retakes. The dialogue was then edited down to the finest perfection in every gesticulation, mimic, pause and use of words, creating a little masterpiece for which he won the prestigious Prix Europa for Best European Documentary in Berlin, as well as the Swedish Academy Award and the Swedish Emmy for Best Documentary in 2011. The script also became a theatre play.
«Lindeen’s speciality is the art of conversation.»
The Raft is the second work in what Lindeen himself calls his trilogy of studio made documentaries. It follows the same technique, combining beautiful archive material along with present day «in-studio conversation» among the six survivors, revealing new depths to their voyage. By creating these two storylines, one in the present and one from the past, Lindeen allows himself to cross-cut between these two time periods in a flowing way, bringing a greater understanding to the whole experience. Unfortunately none of the subjects «interviewed» in The Raft have the same strong, charismatic charm as the subjects of Regretters. Nonetheless, The Raft is a genuinely fascinating story.
Innate good vs. innate evil
We observe these joyful, suntanned people in their tiny swimsuits free from life jackets. They are all damn good looking, yet no sexual competition or orgies seem to occur despite Santiago’s growing frustration and provocations. Two-thirds into the journey, and into this perfectly constructed storyline, there appears to be only one really dangerous person aboard who brings an actual threat to the whole community. To Genovés’ surprise and great revelation, that aggressive person is none other than himself. In the end he succumbs to psychosomatic illness, most probably due to all the negative vibrations the others are beaming at him as they dream of his accidental drowning or of his disappearance from the raft altogether.
Although I studied social anthropology, I can’t recall ever having heard of the Acali experiment. In other words, the Acali experiment did not end up in our textbooks as a significant scientific event. However the film is of much greater value than the experiment itself. By combining Santiago’s «scientific» journal and the new truth revealed by the surviving participants, it provides us with a unique insight into the subtle power wielded by women, and it even acknowledges the existence of spirits. Most of all it shows us the natural goodness in all human beings when we are all equal in an isolated location.