'The Raft': Film Review

Courtesy of Metrograph Pictures
Stranger than fiction.

Marcus Lindeen's documentary tells the story of a bizarre 1973 social experiment involving 11 volunteers sailing across the Atlantic on a raft to see whether conflict would result.

Any doubts that the 1970s were a particularly strange period are erased by The Raft, Marcus Lindeen's documentary about one of the more unique sociological experiments ever conducted. The film recounts the real-life tale of a 101-day trans-Atlantic voyage on a raft, undertaken in 1973 by Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genovés and 11 volunteer subjects to study whether people would inevitably resort to violence in a confined space. Genovés claimed that he was conducing his experiment in the interest of promoting world peace, but the results played out more like a precursor of cheesy modern-day reality shows.

The film's principal conceit is to organize a reunion of the six surviving participants (Genovés died in 2013) and have them comment on their experience while sitting on a life-size re-creation of the raft, which was called "Acali," in a studio. Their reminiscences are combined with archival footage of the journey and excerpts from Genovés' diaries read by actor Daniel Gimenez Cacho (Zama). 

Genovés, who was inspired to devise the experiment after being a passenger on a hijacked plane, picked his subjects carefully. From 1,000 applicants who responded to his classified ads, he selected six women and five men representing various ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds. One common feature was that they were all sexually attractive, the better to further his goal of encouraging them to have sex with one another to see how it would change the interpersonal dynamics. He also put women in all of the leadership roles, such as Maria Bjornstam, a Swedish merchant marine who was made captain. "I couldn't imagine crossing the Atlantic in something that looked like a tin box," she recalls.

Unfortunately for Genovés (and perhaps for the documentary as well), nothing terribly dramatic happened on the trip, despite his attempts to create conflict that eventually included relieving Bjornstam of her command. The voyagers got along well with each other for the most part, despite the utter lack of privacy that made even going to the bathroom (overboard, it turns out) a public display. Some of them did indeed have sex with each other, but the vessel hardly deserved the label of "Sex Raft" that blared in the headlines of many tabloid news stories of the time. "It was complicated to have sex on the raft, because other people could always see you," one of the women points out. The sole act of aggression was committed by one of the men who savagely sliced up a small, hapless shark that washed up on the raft.

The reigning feeling among the raft's passengers was boredom. If there was any anger and tension, it was mostly directed at Genovés, who quickly became frustrated by his subjects' lack of cooperation. They, in turn, came to rebel against his less than subtle manipulations. "At sea, he started behaving like a dictator," one recalls about Genovés, who insisted that they participate in such exercises as "The Game of Truth." Raft veteran Fe Seymour says that she considered Genovés a racist, since he expected that she and the one other black passenger would inevitably gravitate to each other. In one of the documentary's more darkly amusing moments, she describes her fantasy in which she imagined all on board murdering Genovés by stabbing him individually. (The resemblance to Murder on the Orient Express goes unmentioned.)

In the end, Genovés considered his experiment a dismal failure, but he was undaunted. He dreamed up a plan, which went unrealized, that involved him making a similar journey on a tiny raft that would fit only himself and have a glass bottom.

The documentary isn't fully successful in lending dramatic urgency to its bizarre tale. The archival footage shot aboard the raft is fleeting and not particularly arresting except for the dramatic visual contrast between the young, sexy figures and their dignified, elderly counterparts taking part in the group discussion. And while the voyagers' modern-day reunion was no doubt moving for them, their recollections prove only fitfully interesting. and the artificial setting inevitably feels gimmicky.

This is such a uniquely bizarre story that it can't help but exert a certain fascination. But it's hard to avoid the feeling that it would have been better served by a compelling dramatization rather than this too-dry documentary.

Production: Fasad, Bullitt Film, Sutor Kolonko, Motto Pictures
Distributer: Metrograph Pictures
Director: Marcus Lindeen
Producer: Erik Gandini
Executive producers: Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Jesper Kurlandsky, Ingmar Trost
Director of photography: Mans Mansson
Production designer: Simone Grau Roney
Editors: Dominika Daubenbuchel, Alexandra Strauss
Composer: Hans Appelqvist

97 minutes