Review: A Human Experiment at Sea in The Raft

There are two truly fascinating, wildly different documentaries about unique sailing trips being released right on top of each other that are both worth your time. One is Maiden, about the first all-female crew to compete in an around-the-world race. The first to arrive in theaters, however, is director Marcus Lindeen’s The Raft, concerning a 1973 science experiment set on the Atlantic Ocean that resulted in some unexpected and perhaps unwanted conclusions and was the brainchild of Spanish anthropologist Santiago Genovés. Known as the Acali Experiment, Genovés pulled together a diverse crew of five men and six women—all of whom were, by design, attractive, young and fit—to float across the ocean to Mexico for roughly 100 days and record what happened. They were all of different nationalities, religious beliefs and spoke a variety of languages.

The Raft

Image courtesy of Gene Siskel Film Center

The experiment was well documented with cameras and loads of surveys and field notes, and the hope was that something extreme would happen. Perhaps the raft would become a sexual melting pot or perhaps a new chapter in Lord of the Flies or a vessel filled with an exceedingly bored crew. Genovés’ hope was to test his theories on why wars begin or don’t begin, so he mixed things up by putting the women in charge of the most important tasks (including having a female captain) and making the men do the menial tasks. But by isolating his subjects and keeping them away from the rest of society, the scientist hoped violent tendencies would surface and be confronted and dealt with by the group.

Director Lindeen has reunited seven of the original 11 subjects (including all of the women), collecting their remembrances of both the trip and how it impacted the rest of their lives—all conducted on a reconstructed version of the original raft. The results of the journey and The Raft itself are both equally unexpected, as it becomes becomes clear that the biggest danger or threat to life on the vessel is Genovés himself and his desire to have concrete results for his study or risk being the laughing stock of the scientific community. But when faced with adversity, his subject rally, communicate and use their better judgement (of course, one of their possible plans is pushing their host off the boat).

The Raft tracks the trajectory of this event that was otherwise lost to history, and revives the journey and the memories in a way that seems shockingly relevant at a time when no one on earth seems to get along. The recently recovered archival footage is priceless and quite illuminating, and doesn’t just provide pretty pictures to go along with the modern narration, but actually illustrates examples of specific behaviors addressed in Genovés’ journals (read by Daniel Giménez Cacho). It’s a captivating journey, both in 1973 and today.

The film opens Friday for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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