By Daniel Lindvall.
In May 1973 six women and five men set out from the Canary Islands to cross the Atlantic to Mexico in a twelve by seven metres large raft, the Acali. The ungainly vessel was made of wood, steel and glass, and equipped with a sail but no engine. Only one of the participants had any real knowledge of seamanship and navigation, Swedish captain Maria Björnstam. They were all part of an experiment designed by Spanish-Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genovés and financed by a Mexican TV-channel.
Genovés hoped to learn more about the reasons behind violence and conflict among humans by studying the actions of a sample of humanity isolated together for three months, with almost zero room for privacy. They all slept in the one room of the raft and even had to go to the toilet in full view of everyone. Albeit a heteregeneous group in many aspects – including a young Algerian woman, an Israeli doctor with a military background, a Japanese photographer, an Angolan Catholic priest, and so on – they were all young, aged between 23 and 37 (though Genovés himself was in his late forties) and chosen for their physical attractiveness. Genovés believed/hoped this would lead to sexual tensions onboard and trigger violent behaviour in the males as they competed for female attention. To further heighten male frustration, Genovés also chose to reverse patriarchal gender roles by putting the women in charge of the more prestigious tasks.
However, half way through the voyage, the only instance of violence remains the killing of a shark they catch while fishing. Disappointed and frustrated, Genovés tries his best to instigate conflict. He reads out aloud the answers the participants have given in confidence on questionnaires they have been obliged to fill in regularly, letting them all know who finds who most attractive, sexy, irritating, and so on. He suggests to the African-American participant Fé, that she has sex with the Angolan priest, since they must be naturally attracted to each other, being both black. And, finally, when they are about to get caught in a hurricane and captain Björnstam decides to set course for safety on the nearest Caribbean island rather than risking their lives to reach Mexico, Genovés strips her of her authority and unilaterally claims the captaincy for himself. The experiment is more important than the lives of the participants. But however much Genovés tries, the group keeps the internal peace, while, during the darkest hours, they instead discuss how to get rid of this newfound dictator before he gets them all killed.
The Acali experiment is the subject of one of this year’s most thought-provoking documentaries, The Raft (Flotten, written and directed by Magnus Lindeen), which is currently making its way around the festival circuit. The film tells the story through a combination of archive material filmed during the voyage and scenes where we see a handful surviving participants discuss their memories aboard a wooden replica of the Acali. For Fé, one of these survivors, the experiment was a successful lesson, not about violence, but about peace through communication – a lesson that, according to her, Genovés missed.
Looking back at the Acali experiment from the horizon of 2018, it’s almost impossible not to make comparisons with the many reality TV-shows based on similar premises, such as Big Brother, to mention only the most obvious example. Why are these shows generally so conflict-ridden, while the collective on Acali manages to get along despite the efforts of Genovés to create animosity? One obvious difference lies in the level of material equality onboard the raft. Had Genovés really wanted to succeed in creating conflict I suspect he could have done so by creating first and second class sleeping quarters, food and drink rations of differing qualities, and various forms of competition for privileges of different kinds. With sharing, rather than competing for resources one major source of conflict is removed.
Still, there was conflict and violence onboard; the mental and verbal violence committed by Genovés himself on the group, including his disastrous stint as captain that ended up almost costing them all their lives, and the conflict between him and the others that this leads to. The violence he wants to study in others finally comes from himself. Ironically, in the end Genovés also seems to be the only one of the men who have a problem with the women taking on the traditionally male-gendered jobs, as we can see when the rudder breaks and someone needs to go into the water and repair it. One of the women onboard is a professional diver. But when her services are needed, Genovés suddenly can’t ‘take responsibility’ for putting a woman in such a dangerous situation. Instead he insists on doing it himself. When he fails, the diver goes down and fixes the rudder early next morning, while Genovés is still asleep; an act of disobedience that infuriates the latter.
Perhaps it is in the behaviour of Genovés that lies the most important lesson on violence here, on the dangers of ‘alpha males’ in positions of power and the need for a strong collective to keep these males in control?
Daniel Lindvall is Film International‘s editor-in-chief.