In the early 1970s, Mexican social anthropologist Santiago Genovés was onboard a plane that wound up hijacked. According to his journals, as a scientist who primarily studied human violence, this was as fascinating an event as could have possibly happened to him. Afterwards, Genovés conceived of an experiment wherein he would gather different types of men and women, set them adrift aboard an isolating raft during a three-month transatlantic voyage and, if his hypotheses were true, gain insight into whether violence is ingrained or learned.
In practice, however, not much actually happened onboard the raft Acali, save a bizarre media blitz that focused on sexual what-if scenarios. Findings, it turns out, were inconclusive at best, unusable at worst, and Genovés ultimately slipped into a mild form of dementia, turning the crew against him rather than one another.
Documentarian Marcus Lindeen revisits the Acali in The Raft, a bit of a records update and a bit of a reunion for surviving members of the experimental voyage. Lindeen goes so far as to rebuild a scale replica of the Acali on a soundstage, allowing the original members of the fateful experiment to explore it once more and trigger long-dormant memories or speak plainly together for the first time in more than 40 years. These bits are indeed interesting, and probably quite cathartic for those who were there. Through a combination of wonderfully preserved footage from the original experiment and modern-day explorations of the replica, a picture begins to unfold.
In attempts to cause rifts between genders, Genovés placed women in the leadership roles and fostered sexual envy at every turn. Eventually, however, he became so obsessed with coming to predetermined conclusions about confrontation, aggression and violence that his ego drove him to the brink of cruelty and, interestingly, physical sickness. Elsewhere, save a painful display of primitive violence against a shark, the subjects disproved his theories at almost every turn—right up until they began contemplating murder in the wake of Genovés' actions. Lindeen only explores this concept superficially, however (and as is easily found online, no murders occurred). Still, it might have been interesting to dig deeper into the motivations behind secret meetings spurred by Genovés' strange methods.
In the end, there's something to be said for how people come together, but the Acali's data certainly didn't add anything meaningful to the age-old question of why we fight. Instead, and perhaps this is the point, we learn about resiliency and fortitude. It's just not particularly fun or worth getting there.
+Fascinating in theory; clean footage of the experiment
Directed by Lindeen
Center for Contemporary Arts, NR, 97 min.