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The Raft, Marcus Lindeen
Archive footage from Santiago Genovés’s raft experiment

This strange 70s social experiment is the lost precursor to reality TV

Marcus Lindeen’s new documentary splices original footage with reenactments to tell the story of one of the strangest group experiments of all time

When Santiago Genovés’s flight home to Mexico City was hijacked by terrorists in 1972, the anthropologist thought the situation was too good to be true. While others would see the horror of the unfolding situation, Genovés could only see the irony. Having spent his whole career studying violent behaviour, the anthropologist saw it instead as an ideal scenario in which to witness how people react to extreme situations. Genovés became fascinated with creating a similar scene in which he could study what makes people act out of the ordinary. But how could he isolate a group of people and expose them to that kind of danger?

The answer was a 12 by 7–metre raft, built to drift across the Atlantic, from the Canary Islands to Mexico. Running on grand intentions instead of an engine, Genovés wanted to understand human violence in the hopes he could bring about world peace. He sought to build a crew made up of a mix of nationalities, professions, and genders. Amongst the chosen 11 was an Angolan priest, a French scuba diver, an Israeli doctor, an Alaskan waitress fleeing an abusive husband, and a Japanese photographer. The only unifying element was that all of the unsuspecting participants were young and attractive.

As the raft set sail from its dock in May 1973, it left a media storm in its wake, with the press nicknaming it the “Sex Raft”. Albeit unbeknownst to them at the time, the crew were heading towards the hurricanes of the Caribbean and the tempestuous personality of Genovés. The 101–day voyage, in which Genovés goaded the crew with intimate questionnaires, provoked the raft’s captain, and solicited a mutiny, has become something of modern mythology.

It was this Odyssean social experiment–come–precursor to modern reality TV which inspired filmmaker Marcus Lindeen to embark on his documentary, The Raft. Lindeen’s neoteric style of filmmaking goes beyond the presumed boundaries of the documentary genre and finds its footing in a liminal space between reality and production.

“(The raft was) like a piece of Greek mythology set in real life” – Marcus Lindeen

Splicing original 16mm footage from the experiment with his own modern-day re-staging of events, the Swedish director – working from the original blueprints – recreated the raft as a theatrical set on which to interview the survivors of the original voyage. The piece was originally commissioned as an installation art piece and was exhibited at Center Pompidou in Paris in 2017, as well as at Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen in 2018. It’s obvious why the vessel makes an arresting set-piece against the inky–black backdrop of a soundstage which evokes the atmosphere of the ocean at night as it reflects the isolation and uncertainty that the crew must have felt.

The Raft will enjoy a limited theatrical release throughout the UK and Europe, and, much like the original experiment, the press that surrounds it borders on being incendiary and misleading. Much like Santiago, contemporary press outlets believe that this film fails its audience because it doesn’t depict the violence that they desired. Headlines like “Mutiny on the Sex Raft: how a 70s science project descended into violent chaos” are far from the truth and feed into the same narrative that Genovés was privy to. Like him, the media focus on sex, the ‘proposed’ mutiny that never really happened, and the science of it all, when really we should look to the people on board the raft.

Sex is touched upon very briefly in the documentary, much like how it was on the raft. Many of the crew weren’t single and were not looking for sex, they were looking for adventure instead. The most striking thing about both the experiment and the documentary is the way that it makes you question what part of the experience is a study of the human experience. Is it the raft itself or the reaction to it? The public projects sex and violence onto what is, in essence, an innocent group. The raft was intended to be free from the corrupting constraints of society, yet it became obvious that it was still bound to the shore.  

As The Raft is released in UK theatres, we sit down with the director to find out why he made the film, what we can learn from Genovés, and what it means for the rest of us.

What made you want to make this film?

Marcus Lindeen: From the very start, I was playing with the idea of making a reunion of older people who had done something radical in the 70s. I was looking at theatre groups and queer communes. I did a lot of research to find a group of people who could come together and talk about their experiences, and how that had affected their lives. When I found this story, it was perfect. It’s like a piece of Greek mythology set in real life. It is something radical, yet not politicised. It’s not about an ideology, like a lot of 70s things are charged with. It was about science and finding the truths about how humans work, and our relationship with violence and sexuality. It was universal and profound.

The use of a soundstage was really effective. What inspired this setting?

Marcus Lindeen: I used the same thing in (another film) Regretters. It is kind of like this black box, a kind of Dogville–like setting almost. A way to play with theatricality. You make an agreement with the audience saying that this is manipulated, it’s a true story, but there is someone there pulling the strings, and you should enter the experience in the same way that you would a theatre show or an art exhibition. The nothingness of the black space creates room for interpretation. Showing the specificities of people would maybe be the natural approach when you make a documentary but this style helps create a more universal interpretation.

“I think his ego took over, and he put peoples lives at risk for his own personal success” – Marcus Lindeen

Do you think that he truly believed he could diagnose and cure world violence?

Marcus Lindeen: I think he had good intentions, yes. He really wanted to find out about how violence worked. A lot of scientists at the time were also preoccupied with the question of how do you solve violence? It was not long after World War II, and the Vietnam War was still raging. That is why so many people were asking questions like why are we violent? Why are some people evil? In that sense, he had good intentions. But his intentions were also skewed by his desire for fame. He wanted to be able to publish books and be recognised. I think his ego took over, and he put peoples lives at risk for his own personal success.

But, you could apply this to an artistic practice as well. 

Were you surprised by anything while making this film?

Marcus Lindeen: It was definitely understanding my own resemblance to Santiago. It wasn’t until I was in the studio shooting the film that I realised maybe I am doing the exact same thing as him! Because after we had shot one of the scenes, the women started to goof around with me a little bit between takes. They said, ‘this question is a Santiago question!’ And I'd be like, ‘I am Santiago!’ I had built a raft, got people to invest in the project, and had invited people to go on board. In the same way that he wanted things to happen, I too wanted things to happen in the studio. We shared a similar frustration when we both didn’t get we wanted. That is when I realised I had more in common with Santiago than I thought.

It was an epiphany that was important to me and the film. My intention was to make a really good film and of course, I wasn’t putting people’s lives at risk but you have to enter a dialogue with yourself, like why are you making these projects? And it was not always clear.

What was it like seeing these people come together again and directing them?

Marcus Lindeen: It was the first time that they had met in 43 years because they had not kept in touch. Seeing them reunite in the studio it was like watching siblings as they had obviously formed strong bonds. I’d let them talk to each other and place them somewhere on the raft with the hopes of the raft evoking memories or helping them get back to the past. And then I just let them talk, after about 20 minutes I did retakes basically, prompting them to say that again or ask a question. They’re like actors of themselves. Which is almost more of a truthful agreement for me as a director. They are invited to participate in the creation and they’re part of the story.

Do you think the experiment was a precursor for modern reality TV shows?

Marcus Lindeen: In a way, it really could have been the first one. They had this 16mm camera on board, which is how they filmed all the footage, and it was sponsored by a Mexican television channel. They had the intention of making something out of this journey, but they never did.

What does this film tell us about being human?  

Marcus Lindeen: I really connect with what Faye says at the end of the film, where she concludes that people didn't fight despite that being Santiago's intention. He had this idea that if he put people from different backgrounds on board a raft, then he would see conflict and he could study that, but that just didn't happen. For him, this made him think his project had failed but Faye gives him credit because, in a way, the experiment proves that people can live in peace despite their differences. It may sound simple, but it is a hopeful conclusion – especially given our current times.

The Raft was released in selected UK cinemas on 18 January