In the early ’70s, Santiago Genovés was an anthropologist from Spain with the manipulative mastery of a modern-day reality TV producer. In what became his most notorious experiment, in which he collected 10 people to live on a small boat named the Acali as it slowly floated from one end of the Atlantic Ocean to the other, he saw the subjects of his social experiment as “basically a microcosm of the world.” They were selected from varying backgrounds, hailing from such countries as Uruguay, Cyprus, Sweden, Mexico, and the United States, “to create tensions.” He let them have no outside entertainment—not even books—and forced them to rely on telling stories and singing to pass the time. He placed them in a dangerous situation to provoke their instincts, and when they didn’t deliver the drama he craved, he attempted to turn them against each other by reading out loud things they’d written in confidence. The man was a drifting ethical violation.
At least, that’s how he’s portrayed in Marcus Lindeen’s riveting documentary The Raft, which opens Friday in a handful of theaters (including New York’s Metograph) and will continue to roll out across the United States throughout the summer. The Raft hits several sweet spots as both a tale of wacky ’70s thinking and also a way for many of the crew’s surviving members (almost all of them women) to reclaim their narrative. If it were streaming on Netflix, it’d almost certainly become the latest in a long line of that platform’s crazes. It is, at any rate, worth seeking out.
Stories about the motor-less boat that more or less comfortably slept 11 bodies becoming a “sex raft,” as it was portrayed in the media at the time, were greatly exaggerated, according to the six subjects who participated in the documentary. While many admit to having some sexual contact with their fellow subjects, they don’t quite paint the experience as the nonstop orgy that news reports did and that Genovés would have probably preferred. Genovés, who died in 2013, is represented by Zama actor Daniel Giménez Cacho, whose narration apparently derives from Genovés’s words on his experiment. The anthropologist hoped that sex and its attendant emotions—particularly jealousy—would be a path to conflict for his subjects.
His aim was to study the nature of human violence, after having written at length on the subject. “From animal tests in laboratories, we know that aggression can be triggered by putting different kinds of rats in a limited space,” Cacho reads. “I want to find out if it’s the same for humans. Is violence something that’s built into our genes or is it something that we learn? Will an isolated group of people on a raft cooperate to survive. Or will the situation create conflicts and make them fight against each other?”
So in May 1973, he crammed together 10 volunteers he found via ads in the newspaper and set off to Mexico from the Canary Islands. They all slept in a single room below deck. There was a hole on the deck that was used as a toilet with no surrounding curtain. Breaking down social taboos was part of the idea. When a subject asked Genovés in front of the group just what he was attempting to achieve, he said, “I want to find a way to create peace on earth.” She rolled her eyes in response.
Genovés became frustrated with his subjects’ failure to devolve into savagery, save the time they happened to catch a shark while fishing. (It should be noted that the movie contains, via its vast array of 16 mm archival footage shot during the experiment, a scene of the shark being bludgeoned. I think movies containing footage of real animal cruelty/mutilation should come with a disclaimer upfront, so here’s yours. At least they ate what they beat.) The movie is not merely a study in what not to do when your thesis fails, it’s also a portrait of a power-drunk dude who intentionally put his subjects’ lives in danger. The route to Mexico had them in the potential paths of hurricanes and when he demoted Maria Björnstam from captain after a disagreement, he showed just out of his depth he was. They found themselves in the way of a much larger boat and he had no idea how to steer them out. (Björnstam sprung to the rescue and resumed her post.)
Part of Genovés’s experiment was to put women in power during a time when women’s equality was at last in the national conversation. “I wonder if having women in power will lead to less violence. Or if there will be more,” Cacho recites. But whether by cause or correlation, when his group’s prevailing harmony was clear, he lashed out. Edna Reves, a doctor from Israel, says in the doc that Genovés actually had a hard time dealing with the terms with the premise of his experiment. After all, he, not the women, had absolute power.
Five of those women, as well as one of the study’s male subjects, Eisuke Yamaki (who thought he was going to be the mission’s designated photographer and only realized he was one of the guinea pigs after he boarded the boat), reunite in the doc’s present day footage. They do most of their reminiscing on a wooden, land-logged replica of the Acali, and occasionally recreate some of the events of the voyage they took almost 50 years ago. The environment (courtesy of production designer/frequent Lars von Trier collaborator Simone Grau Roney) gives that footage a sort of Spike Jonezian/Dogville quirk, while their interviews resist pat characterizations of Genovés and his experiment. Despite the extensive advantage taken of them, many of them recall their time fondly, and their bonds seem to be in tact all these years later.
But that’s not to say that it’s an entirely smooth ride. Fé Seymour, who is black, describes the racism she experienced on the Acali, as Genovés branded her with a litany of stereotypical labels (a primitive, a thief, lazy) and suggested she sleep with Bernardo Bongo, an Angola priest, since they were both black. As Seymour recalls Genovés’s behavior and calls it what it was—racism—she’s opposed by Servane Zanotti, a French woman who adamantly disagrees that Genovés was racist (despite her whiteness ensuring that she wouldn’t be on the receiving end of Genovés’s racism, thus she’s no expert on the subject). It creates the rare moment of tension that Genovés was craving from his group and reminds us that throwing together a bunch of people who lived in close quarters for 101 days a half century ago is its own kind of social experiment.