[…] The problem for the science becomes the problem of the science itself, which is the scientific observational asymmetry between the scientist and the guinea pigs. Making the human an object of inquiry? That is problematic, that is the source of violence, that is violence itself.
[…] «The Raft» tells a story of viewing, where we as viewers are projected on board. The final rebellion of the crew will therefore be turned not only against Genovés but against the camera, and finally against us.
1973: A raft crosses the Atlantic Ocean for a hundred and one days with eleven volunteers for an anthropological experiment headed by a Mexican scientist studying the violent behaviour of human beings. The scientist, Santiago Genovés, is also aboard. The anthropology professor artificially creates, what seems to him, the perfect conditions to trigger violence – with the noble intention of analysing violence and discovering the mechanisms by which to obtain peace (he himself has experienced a flight hijacking while returning from a conference on violent behaviour…). The conditions favour the creation of sexually loaded conflicts between men and women. The candidates are chosen (also) for their sexual appeal, and women are placed in roles of responsibility and power in order to create tension. Sexism and mechanist behaviourism are clearly two heavy ballasts for the raft and its experiment…
In watching Marcus Lindeen’s documentary on this experiment, we realize that the main problem of the experiment will actually prove to be the unexpected peace that – some little quarrels notwithstanding – will reign on the raft, which gives us an injection of optimism and hope. During the three months of the cruise, another problem will emerge in the crew: their unrest and even their hatred for the dictatorial position of the scientist and his obsessions with sexually connoted violence. The problem for the science becomes the problem of the science itself, which is the scientific observational asymmetry between the scientist and the guinea pigs. Making the human an object of inquiry? That is problematic, that is the source of violence, that is violence itself. Lindeen’s documentary work finally highlights how the apparent failure of Genovés’ experiment conceals a great success, despite Genovés himself: the demonstration of the violence that is present in any anthropological dispositive that does not question the neutrality of the position of the scientific observer. Genovés’ anthropology has been largely influenced by ethnology (for a long time he worked on other rafts for other purposes with the ethnologist Thor Heyerdahl) and probably by ethology, and its failure becomes an argument in favour of experiential anthropology, where the observers have to accept their being an active part of the phenomenon that they study.
In this respect, we can say that the drama of the raft experiment is the drama of the “participant-observer”, which is nothing but the misadventure of “the voyeur that has been found out”. If we consider the conditions of a little group that is forced to interact in a tiny space while also in isolation from the rest of the world, Genovés’ gaze is the lens of the camera of Big Brother; his raft is terribly similar to a reality show. Through the abundant video material that Lindeen has skilfully used, we see how the participants of the projects are representing their life in front of the observational camera. The camera on the raft in 1973 has the same stance of the voyeur scientist’s eyes, which cannot avoid remembering our own position as viewers. In this sense, The Raft tells a story of viewing, where we as viewers are projected on board. The final rebellion of the crew will therefore be turned not only against Genovés but against the camera, and finally against us. The rebellious crew expresses the resistance of the human against its definition and its filmic description.
Actually, we as viewers can also take part in this process against voyeurism (our own voyeurism included), as Lindeen adds a sort of reflective re-enactment today, with the seven living of the eleven participants of the experiment. Alternating between frontal interviews and expressive mise-en-scènes, this second layer gives us the chance to gain a distance that is both temporal and conceptual. The deconstruction of the observational viewer that is implicit in Genovés’ failure grows into the deconstruction of the raft itself as microcosm – be it peaceful or violent. Thanks to the contemporary point of view, we get a decisive distance from that microcosm as a representation of the world, as a theatrum mundi. In this way, one of the results of the vision of The Raft is the possibility of criticizing any totalitarian representation. The film itself, as a film, assumes and defends the importance of fragmentation, which is the importance of openness. Lindeen’s answer to Genovés’ question about violence and peace in human beings is that they can get peace as long as they go without defining themselves or reducing themselves to objects of inquiry.
Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
First published: February 10, 2019