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Movie Review: “The Raft"

“The Raft” opens June 21 at the Digital Gym in North Park.

The film’s poster calls it “the strangest group experiment of all time,” and now it’s immortalized in director Marcus Lindeen’s award-winning documentary “The Raft.”

In 1973, Spanish-Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genovés wanted to know whether holding a group of strangers captive in an environment in which they had no privacy and no escape would lead to violence. He built a raft he called Acali, interviewed hundreds of volunteers and chose a demographically diverse crew of 11(six women, five men) who would sail with him from the Canary Islands to Cozumel in Mexico. Some of the crew were married, some particularly attractive. One was fleeing an abusive husband.

Further, he set it up so the women would be given the important tasks. He named Maria (the only experienced sailor of the lot) captain. An Israeli woman was named doctor; another woman became the diver.

They were allowed no books, but as much booze as they wanted, so for entertainment they were limited to singing songs and telling stories.

When the press got wind of it, the experiment was dubbed the “Sex Raft.” In fact, Santiago expected (and wanted to see) sex and violent power plays between the men and women, but when after 51 days the crew was remarkably peaceful (though there was a dalliance or two), he decided to provoke them. Answers to the daily questionnaires they filled out “in confidence” with questions like “Which participant would you kick off the boat if you could?” were read allowed.

This attempt to cause violence actually backfired on Santiago. Some of the participants were so annoyed by his cruelty that they actually considered killing him. And his scientific colleagues deserted him when they heard what he did.

But the only violence that occurred was the brutal hacking of a small shark that was hauled onto the raft.

This is questionable, perhaps even pointless science, but it makes for a fascinating documentary 40 years after the fact, when the six surviving members of that team reunited with Lindeen to talk about the experiment in “The Raft.”

Two women are particularly affecting: Maria, the Swedish captain, and Fé, an African American woman, who both suffered a lot (for different reasons) and have finally come to recognize the affection they found for each other 40 years ago. Fé also found an even deeper bond with her African ancestors who had been brought to the New World as slaves.

Santiago died in 2013, so Lindeen found Daniel Giménez Cacho, a fine actor who reads some of Santiago’s notes and brings alive what Santiago was trying to do.

Special kudos to the film’s editors – Dominika Daubenbüchel and Alexandra Strauss (editor of “I Am Not Your Negro”), who manage to cut between archival footage and interviews on the reconstructed but landlocked raft set so effectively.

“The Raft” (which won the top documentary prize at Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX festival) is indeed a strange but fascinating film.

“The Raft” opens June 21 at the Digital Gym in North Park.