Margot Benacerraf, Award-Winning Venezuelan Documentarian, Dies at 97

Margot Benacerraf, a critically acclaimed Venezuelan documentary filmmaker whose hypnotic “Araya,” a visual tone poem chronicling the daily lives of salt workers on an austere peninsula on her country’s coast, shared the critics’ prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, died on Wednesday in Caracas. She was 97.

Her death was announced by the country’s culture minister.

Hailed as a major figure of Latin American cinema, Ms. Benacerraf founded Venezuela’s national cinematheque and in 2018 was given the Order of Francisco de Miranda, honoring outstanding merit in the sciences and humanities, by the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro.

But although Ms. Benacerraf was celebrated, she was not prolific. She made only two films in her career: “Reverón” (1952), a 23-minute documentary short about the reclusive later years of the Venezuelan artist Armando Reverón, and “Araya,” her sole feature-length work.

Influenced by the magic realism of novelists like Gabriel García Márquez and Alejo Carpentier, Ms. Benacerraf captured, in 90 minutes, the sweat and toil of workers amid the towering salt pyramids on the centuries-old mining terrain of the Araya peninsula. “Araya” shared the International Federation of Film Critics award at Cannes in 1959 with Alain Resnais’s landmark New Wave film, “Hiroshima Mon Amour.”

In 2019, the New Yorker film critic Richard Brody called “Araya” a “majestic documentary portrait” of salt producers and their families. “Benacerraf’s grand style,” he wrote, “captures the drama of subsistence in the face of nature,” adding that “the overwhelming beauty of the wide-open spaces contrasts with the workers’ burdened trudges through them.”

When a restored version of the film, which had been little seen for decades, was released on its 50th anniversary in 2009, it was hailed as a lost classic. “‘Araya’ is at once a revealing study of a very unique way of life and also a powerful meditation on the inextricable ties between society and place,” the celebrated documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple said. The director Steven Soderbergh called it “a gift to cineastes.”

Its languid pace and meditative air were not for everyone. In a 2009 appraisal, the critic Mike Hale of The New York Times praised the film’s “Buñuelian austerity” and “breathtaking” visuals, but warned viewers, “Just don’t be surprised if the rhythms you feel most strongly are your own circadian ones.”

Ms. Benacerraf was born on Aug. 14, 1926, in Caracas to Fortunato Benacerraf, an executive at a family trading company, and Sete (Coriat) Benacerraf.

Ms. Benacerraf studied philosophy and literature at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas before turning her sights to film. She trained in cinematography at the influential Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies in Paris, where the likes of Mr. Resnais, Louis Malle and Costa-Gavras also honed their craft.

As an aspiring filmmaker in the Venezuela of the early 1950s, she found her prospects limited, and not just because of gender barriers.

“I can’t say that being a woman has made my work difficult,” she said in a 2009 interview with the film website Ioncinema. “I suffered the general conditions of a country where it was very difficult to make films. In the Venezuela of those times the filmmaking trade was practically unknown.”

She had never made any sort of film when she set out to document the hermetic lifestyle of Mr. Reverón, a celebrated Latin American painter and sculptor, who by then was “a shambling figure surrounded by mirrors and bric-a-brac,” The Art Newspaper observed in 2011. “The scenes of Reverón’s life in his primitive dwelling are haunting and disturbing,” the article continued, “giving no suggestion that this is an artist whose work can regularly fetch six-figure sums at auction today.”

“Reverón” brought attention to Ms. Benacerraf after screenings at film festivals in Cannes, Berlin and elsewhere. The acclaim provided momentum for her next project, which was originally intended to be a triptych of short films about the daily lives of ordinary Venezuelans.

While researching possible locations, she was struck by a magazine feature that showed the “beautiful strangeness” of Araya, Ms. Benacerraf said in a 1992 interview published by The Journal of Film & Video.

Despite the international acclaim it received upon release, “Araya” did not hit theaters in Venezuela for 18 years, because, she later said, distributors initially thought it was “too intellectual” for the nation’s filmgoers.

She eventually turned her attention to promoting for film appreciation and filmmaking in her country. She founded the national cinematheque, modeled on the hallowed Cinémathèque Française in Paris, in 1966.

Information on her survivors was not immediately available.

While she would never again direct, Ms. Benacerraf remained proud of her signature film into her later years — not just for its aesthetic beauty, but also for its portrayal of the human condition.

“What drew me most to Araya,” she said in the 1992 interview, “was not its austere, unforgiving beauty but the dignity of its inhabitants.”

“In the middle of that desolate, forbidding place,” she continued, “they managed to turn the same elements that made their existence so difficult into their very means of survival.”

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