A compelling hallmark of a social experiment is that the results often found tend to unlock the disturbing recesses of the human condition. But for the architect of a behavioural study, the design of a psychological investigation can never be expected to adhere with their idealised thesis. Marcus Linden’s fascinating documentary ‘The Raft’, which examines the infamous 1973 Acali Experiment, details this via anthropologist Santiago Genovés’ increasing dismay as his intentions for academic breakthrough struggled to take the brash form he desperately aspired for. However, that’s what makes for captivating viewing. What begins as a deep dive into the mechanics of the ‘Big Brother’ premise slowly reveals itself as an examination of the scale we emplace in our pursuits when spearheaded by desire. Sparking a notion that illuminates the divergency of what makes us human which ultimately forges a result of sincere profundity.
‘The Raft’ begins with the genesis of Genovés’ experiment. While boarding a flight home from an anthropology convention on the history of violence, terrorists stormed the plane and effectively seized control. As others cowered in fear, Genovés was elated by the irony. For a man constantly wishing to unravel the nature of violent behaviour, he couldn’t believe his luck as he became witness to such a frightening ordeal. Returning home, he believed if he could orchestrate a similar situation of creating tension in isolation, it would be an ideal laboratory to study what causes somebody to react with violence. To quarantine from the outside world, he decided to build a small raft to voyage across the Atlantic, as he packed it with test subjects of varying nationalities, genders and religions to augment friction on board.
'THE RAFT' TRAILER
In the summer of 1973, the Acali commenced its 101-day journey with an expectation to break new ground in the academic cognisance of violence and sexual dynamics. With his 11 human guinea pigs in tow, Genovés anticipated that violent conflicts and sexual orgies would quickly arise in what he labelled his "Peace Project." However as the trip persisted, the study started to transfigure into something far more idyllic than forecasted. And with his plans for sordidness dissipating, Genovés attempted to forcibly exercise his thesis through inimical methods.
Moreover, as the film reunites the remaining members of the expedition onboard a life-size replica of the Acali, some 40 years after the events transpired, to voice their respective memories. Enshrouded revelations begin to surface amidst a vehement discussion of the project’s ethics and exploitation.
‘The Raft’ is an engrossing documentary when it probes to what extreme should one be able to fulfil their goals. Linden examines the experiment’s fallout from two specific points: the voyage itself from the perspective of Genovés’ diaries, and the present in which the survivors are reunited to ruminate. The consensus between the survivors is mixed, and the conversation never ceases to be compelling as we watch rationality contend with passion. It’s interesting to see the debate for Genovés’ prejudice behaviour; disagreements stem between those rife with resentment and others who believe no act was unwarranted. We see several survivors recollect heinous realisations, and while somewhat limited by conjecture, the reframing of the experiment’s tribulations through the guise of the now-elderly crew members is handled deftly.
Additionally, it offers a rich juxtaposition to the portrayal of Genovés’ ideologies during the time the experiment was conducted. As the film really positions itself as a dissection of Genovés, divulging his hubris, determination and iniquitousness to startling effect. The film places great emphasis on his alternating presence onboard the Acali — specifically towards his initial occupancy as no more than a voyeur, but progressively his resolve begins to transform him into a dictator. Genovés passed away in 2013, meaning he isn’t able to combat his naysayers, but Linden arguably creates something more fitting. As we listen to his narrated diary entries, Genovés' presence looms over the production, shaping him as a figure consumed by a God complex and aching to control his creation. Through this distinction, it showcases the man’s uncertainty and creates a far more relatable figure in the process.
‘The Raft’ makes the bold decision to retell a social experiment in a quieter manner because it speaks true to the often unstated avenues these studies can take, and as such can never completely harmonise. But there’s also something to be said about its complexity, and in telling this story from a smaller scope shows us we can’t hope to shape the stature of our catharsis.
Yet, in its best moments, ‘The Raft’ strives to teach us how simple it can be for our ambition to become our downfall. As we watch Genovés do all in his power to contrive conflict and sex, the documentary shows that if we allow things to take their natural course, we shouldn’t be concerned with trying to design peace. It’s an endearing sentiment, and in addition to showcasing several erudite facets of psychology and ontology, it is brilliantly portrayed.
That being said, with the film adopting a tonality akin to the experiment itself, that choice at times rings a bit hollow. For a film with a high concept, Linden tends to undercut the drama, which consequently makes considerable intervals meandering and some borderline anticlimactic. You can understand the principle behind this in that the film never wants to descend into the psychological exploitation that Genovés was trying to orchestrate. However, in doing so, it manages to create such similarly slight outcomes to those Genovés feared he would earn during the experiment. The film is never uninteresting, though for everything the film does well certain concepts feel far from unambiguously explored as they should be.
Indeed, some may feel that the film’s choice to stray from drama may be too damning to their immersion, and that isn’t unpardonable. ‘The Raft’ makes the bold decision to retell a social experiment in a quieter manner because it speaks true to the often unstated avenues these studies can take, and as such can never completely harmonise. But there’s also something to be said about its complexity, and in telling this story from a smaller scope shows us we can’t hope to shape the stature of our catharsis. 'The Raft' is about the smaller moments, and how they can often be just as pivotal as the colossal ones, and the philosophy in that should never be overlooked.