Dubbed ”Big Brother” at sea, in 1973 an anthropologist placed 11 demographically diverse strangers on a raft for 100 days, and gave them to cross the Atlantic Ocean as tempers flare and sexual tensions rose. The Raft is the directional debut from Swedish director Marcus Lindeen.
Lindeen expertly builds on the tension between perspectives past and present, playing the contemporary reflections of the Acali Experiment’s surviving subjects (who are mostly women) against the defensive, ethically questionable observations of the project’s late Spanish-Mexican founder Santiago Genoves. Being full of tension, and cleverly executed, it’s no surprise that The Raft was the winner of the top documentary prize at Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX festival.
When asked what he hoped to achieve with his social experiment, Genoves claimed he wanted to find ”peace on Earth,” but was this necessarily the case? The film begins with an extract from Genoves’ journal, ”It all started with a hijacking” as he recounts being on a plane that was hijacked by terrorists which sparked his interest in violent behaviour. By using extracts from Genoves journals delivered in voiceover by actor Daniel Gimenez Cacho, it is discovered that he is more interested in studying human conflict rather than finding a solution to world peace.
When conflict doesn’t occur, then Genoves admits to meddling in the affairs of the participants to get the results he wants. The crew members range from American waitress Mary(who sought a way out of her abusive relationship) to assertive Swedish mariner Maria to retiring Japanese photographer Eisuke, the 11 subjects were selected by Genoves as if he were casting his own perverse reality show, expecting specific formulations of sexual chemistry and personal friction. However, as discussed by the participants, sex on the raft was a way to bond and create friendships and necessarily it made the unit stronger.
Through the use of voice-over narration from Genoves’ journals, Lindeen manages to show the journey of the Raft and the fall-out of what took place over those 100 days. However, rather than just rely on Genoves’ account, Lindeen reunites the living participants of the study. They question Genoves’ motives and recount their own experiences, while on a life-size studio replica of the original raft, designed by production designer Simone Grau Roney.
Some of the participants have a sympathetic view of the project’s intentions.And, there are those who have complicated feelings of resentment and anger towards Genoves, accusing him of gross exploitation and prejudice. He is described as having old-fashioned values, some of which were out-dated for the 1970s. His seemingly liberal motion to recruit women for the most powerful positions on board, like appointing Maria as the raft’s captain, is deconstructed, and it is discovered through his journals that he resented having a female in charge of his ship.
Lindeen proposes the question as to whether Genoves deliberately creates a battle of the sexes, and asks whether there a misogynistic undertow to his manipulation? Genoves seemed to delight in pairing the participants off and talking about sexuality non-stop, but the females recount how the male participants weren’t very attractive. Regardless of what actually was happening on the ship, the media dubbed the experiment as the “sex raft” and made out that on-board it was one big orgy. “No one’s writing about the science,” Genoves complains, and you can understand his frustrations.
His career and reputation were resting on this experiment and he was being mocked openly in the media, maybe this explains his behaviour on the raft? It is worth adding Genoves, who passed away in 2013, is not present to defend himself at this heated reunion (but his journals speak volumes). The reunited crew members can all agree that mistakes were made, but the mistakes reflect their own personal experiences on board. Sometimes tempers rise up between the crew, but it’s clear that they may have set on board as strangers but they left as friends.
The Raft is a powerful documentary, and by allowing the remaining participants to tell their side of the story, the film becomes far more personal. The use of the super-8 footage taken during the 100 days at sea helps add another layer to this extraordinary tale. The use of Genoves’ diary is effective by pairing it with the contrasting viewpoints from the participants, leaving the viewer to come to their own conclusion about what Genoves’ intentions were. The documentary is a fascinating insight into one man’s determination to get results and assert his authority, at the risk of his own reputation and credibility. And, I do hope that it’s chances of winning an Oscar don’t sail away.