Review: Sex and conflict on the high seas revealed in documentary ‘The Raft’

A scene from the documentary "The Raft."
(Fasad / Metrograph Pictures)

Best described as a mind-blowing nonfiction adventure, “The Raft,” by Swedish documentarian Marcus Lindeen, navigates an ethically questionable experiment that in 1973 jeopardized the physical safety and mental sanity of 10 individuals with the excuse of examining the nature of violence.

Fixated on humanity’s worst instincts, Mexican social anthropologist Santiago Genovés hatched a plan to isolate his voluntary subjects on a raft without a motor, which he christened Acali, and sail across the Atlantic. He traveled along to observe their behavior.

Handpicked to maximize the group’s propensity for conflict based on gender, race and religion, the participants acted as a microcosm of a global society. Once aboard, Genovés put women in leadership positions, expecting their male counterparts to feel emasculated and incited the crew to have sexual encounters in pursuit of jealousy-driven carnage.


Favored with copious amounts of footage shot during the voyage, as well as Genovés’ collected data and writings, Lindeen forged a riveting and illuminating study of the unscrupulous endeavor; and cast actor Daniel Giménez Cacho (“Zama”) to voice the mad scientist in the piercing first-person narration.

More inspired yet is that instead of pairing that material with ordinary on-camera interviews, the filmmaker cleverly built a replica of the raft and brought in the seven living survivors to interact in those familiar spaces and discuss the ordeal in hindsight, from Genovés’ deceitful practices to their own homicidal impulses.

Their unfiltered heart-to-hearts, particularly between captain Maria Björnstam and African American frontierswoman Fé Seymour, reveal that even if the “Sex Raft Experiment” didn’t yield answers on innate brutality, it perhaps demonstrated our capacity for cooperation and diplomacy when in crisis.


‘The Raft’

In French, Swedish, Japanese and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes

Playing: Starts June 14, Laemmle Glendale