Marcus Lindeen’s new documentary confronts its viewers with their obsession with sex and violence. Santiago Genovés, a Mexican anthropologist, decided to isolate and study a group of people on a raft while crossing the Atlantic ocean for 3 months in 1973. He got the idea for this study when, in November 1972, he was flying to a conference on violence and his plane was hijacked by a group of terrorists. Santiago was hoping that by this isolation and confronting the participants with harsh situations, he would find the root of the human conflicts. After many people volunteered to participate in the study, Santiago selected a diverse group of people from different nations, ethnicities, religions, professions, and life backgrounds.
Screened at the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival, the film uses both original footage, shot by Santiago on the raft at the time, and a collection of reenactments and interviews by and with 7 of the 10 participants (3 of them had died before filming). More than 40 years later, the 7 participants sit on a model of the raft set in a studio and try to remember and reenact some of their memories of the event. They talk to each other and are interviewed by the filmmaker. Sometimes they reveal some information to each other for the first time, like who they had sex with on the raft, but the most touching moment is when Fe Seymour, an African American woman, recounts the time she got some kind of strange vision, known as ocean vertigo. One day on the raft, she realized that the path they were taking was the same that her slave ancestors took to come to America. The old Fe tells one of the other participants that she felt her ancestors lived once again inside her temporarily and that was a transcending experience for her. She had never disclosed that experience before, out of fear of not being believed.
Santiago, whose voice is acted by Daniel Giménez Cacho, narrates on the film. He hopes and promises high conflict accompanied by sex and violence by the participants. However, days pass and almost nothing important happens. Santiago stays hopeful and even starts to manipulate the participants, but he fails. He finally gets sick as a result.
In the end of the film, when we leave the theater, we might be disappointed by being promised sex and violence and get almost nothing. Here is how the film’s genius works. The Raft, more than anything, is an uncomfortable mirror in front of us to encounter our own obsession with sex and violence. Santiago gets sick by not seeing anything and we might get disappointed by the film by seeing nothing. We were promised those two ubiquitous elements in the media, but what we got was a representation of a group of people who cared for each other, who collaborated with each other at difficult times, and their sexual intercourses didn’t cause big conflicts between them and didn’t seem to any big of a deal—just a natural part of their 3-month life on the raft.
Alluding to Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s (another anthropologist) Chronicle of A Summer (1965), in the end, the participants respond to the whole experience and to Santiago’s audio recording, reporting on the experience. Some have found the experience life-changing, some have found it just an experience that happened and nothing changed in their life after that, and some other have found it transforming in one or another way. Santiago, himself, later considered the experiment “successful,” and recommended everyone to make a raft and go on it for the same kind of experience! That is the time when we’re confronted with ourselves: How did we find the experiment and the experience of watching the film? Do we wish they did erupt into mass violence and sex? Do we want to go on a raft and see it up-close? If yes, why? If not, why not?