There is no collection of human beings too small for conflict, as anyone who has had roommates or endured a family car trip surely knows. But social science exists to test — and sometimes to affirm — our self-knowledge as a species, which is why 11 people spent the summer of 1973 crossing the Atlantic on a small raft powered only by wind, ocean currents and the ambition of a Mexican anthropologist named Santiago Genovés.
This journey, the subject of a fascinating new documentary called “The Raft,” was not an early exercise in “Real World”-style television, though a film camera was present on board the vessel, silently recording the interactions of the young, international, scantily dressed crew. Genovés, who designed the Acali (as it was called) and made the crossing with his subjects, was motivated by idealism and curiosity rather than — or perhaps in addition to — prurience.
After surviving an airplane hijacking, he conceived of an experiment that he hoped would reveal whether violence was wired into the human genetic code or whether it arose through social conditions. In its mixture of high-mindedness, arrogance and dystopian potential, the voyage of the Acali recalls other notorious undertakings of its era, notably Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. In this case, instead of being confined to cells and divided into opposing groups, the subjects were set adrift for three months and encouraged to be as open and free as possible.
News reports emphasized the salacious aspects of “the Love Raft” — spreading rumors of orgies at sea — which were exaggerated, though not entirely alien to Genovés’s plan. He had selected his 10 companions based partly on their physical attractiveness, and his questionnaires were designed to get them thinking about sex, which he theorized was a source of conflict. It turned out to be more of a logistical challenge, given the small dimensions of the Acali and the total absence of privacy.
Genovés’s contemporaneous diaries and later reflections — read in voice-over by the actor Daniel Giménez Cacho (“Zama”) — provide one narrative thread in “The Raft.” If the director, Marcus Lindeen, had followed the usual documentary methods, blending old footage with interviews and maybe a re-enactment or two, he would have accomplished something worthwhile, illuminating a minor chapter in the history of intellectual hubris and casual nudity. But what he does is something far more interesting. By setting Genovés’s words in counterpoint with the recollections of seven of the participants who are still alive, he reinterprets the experiment, finding meanings that the scientist missed. (Genovés died in 2013).
More than 40 years after the crossing from the Canary Islands to Mexico, the six women who sailed on the Acali gather aboard a plywood replica built for the film on a soundstage in Sweden. Their reminiscences are thoughtful and emotional — their well-worn faces beautiful, weathered afterimages of the ones we see in the footage from 1973 — and they expose the complicated power dynamics that emerged in the group, as well as an easy camaraderie that challenged Genovés’s hypothesis.
When violence failed to erupt — except for one incident, in which the target was an unlucky shark — he tried to instigate it, a blatant violation of basic ethical standards in social science. Though he comes across in his own writings as witty and self-aware, the picture that emerges decades later is of a moody, manipulative Svengali, blinded by his ego to what was really happening on the raft.
Before setting sail, Genovés had given the most important jobs to women. Maria Bjornstam, an officer in the Swedish merchant marine, was the captain. Edna Reves, who had served in the Israeli Army, was the ship’s doctor. Servane Zanotti was the designated diver. The other men seem to have accepted this arrangement without complaint, but Genovés had a habit of undermining the women’s authority. For no good reason, he took away Bjornstam’s command, an act of mutiny that, she dryly points out, is generally punishable by death. Another woman, Fé Seymour, one of two black Acali crew members, recalls his casual racism and misogyny, though some of the others disagree.
Their collective testimony amounts to a feminist critique of Genovés’s methods and assumptions. Toward the end, Seymour argues, movingly and persuasively, that the experiment was a success, but not in the way its architect had intended, and not with results he could recognize. He was so intent on finding violence and dissension that he failed to read the data on solidarity and problem-solving — on the deeply rooted human potential to be decent — that was right in front of his eyes.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes.