Over four decades ago, a Mexican anthropologist was returning from a conference when his plane was hijacked. Although a harrowing experience, the incident fuelled Santiago Genovés to further investigate aggression and violence in human behaviour. What resulted has been called one of the strangest experiments ever conducted.
Genovés constructed a raft measuring 12 x 7m with the intention of sailing the Atlantic Ocean along with ten volunteers, men and women of diverse backgrounds, faiths and ethnicities. They set sail from Las Palmas in Spain in May 1973 with their destination of Cozumel in Mexico months away. Named Acali (a word from a Nahuatl language meaning “the house on the water”), the raft had a 4 x 3.9m cabin, no engine – merely a rudder to steer, a couple of life boats and no safety boats following them. What did follow was 101 days of society in isolation under a microscope. Anything could happen.
I had no idea such a bonkers experiment had even occurred, but filmmaker Marcus Lindeen made it the subject of a documentary released last year titled: The Raft. The trailer for the film was very intriguing and implied that the situation on the vessel went a bit ‘Game of Thrones’ showing newspaper headlines at the time dubbing it ‘The Sex Raft’. I was fascinated to see Lindeen’s film and find out what actually happened.
Lindeen had painstakingly tracked down Genovés’ material, contacted the remaining living participants and built a replica of the Acali for them to discuss their experience of drifting the ocean for over three months with a collection of strangers. Combining this with footage shot on the raft itself Lindeen has managed to craft a graceful, factual and sympathetic chronicle of the risky voyage.
Watching the drama build and unfold from the comfort of a luxurious reclining cinema seat with a gin in my hand, I realised how an experiment of this nature was unique in its day, but how we have become accustomed to being casual voyeurs 46 years later. Big Brother has been plaguing our screens since the year 2000, with Love Island also resurfacing in 2015, making this idea of isolating and containing people in limited space to observe and scrutinise a part of regular popular culture, usually with explosive results.
Genovés carefully cast his diverse crew in order to observe tensions that were seemingly inevitable. He also stoked the sexual tension fire by making sure all the participants were attractive and gave the positions of authority, most notably Captain and Doctor to women. He delegated the more ‘traditionally female’ roles of cooking and cleaning to the men to see if that would cause friction between the genders, a fair assumption considering it was 1973. He also subjected the volunteers to regular questionnaires testing their thoughts about their fellow crew members, evolving state of mind as well as deeply personal questions. He logged absolutely everything.
There was some sexual activity between a few volunteers, but nothing like the ‘orgy’ that was reported in the press. There was a particularly violent dispatching of a shark that was caught while fishing, which may have signalled the start of some kind of tribal “Lord of the Flies” shift in the group, but instead the crew bonded and functioned well together. This frustrated Genovés who began to treat his subjects more ruthlessly, sharing their previously confidential questionnaire answers with the group, especially how they felt about each other, and bullying them. He became a tyrant.
Despite his behaviour towards them, instead of increasing the aggression between the participants they bonded further, forming closer connections and beginning to operate as a cohesive unit. Hearing the survivors discuss their experiences and interactions with each other warmly one can see the firmness of that bond they share. They even quietly flirted with the idea of dispatching with their dictator so they could be left in peace, which thankfully never developed beyond a discussion.
Incidences of real danger that almost killed all the crew raised tensions between Genovés and the group. They narrowly escaped the worst of a hurricane as well as being run into by a giant tanker ship. Realising his tactics weren’t producing the reactions he was hoping for Genovés seemed to give up on his experiment, fell very ill, and upon recovering decided to focus on designing a follow up experiment for a similar voyage but for a solo participant.
Upon the completion of the experiment with their landing in Mexico, Genovés published his works in a book entitled: “The Acali Experiment” declaring the adventure a success, and I’m inclined to agree. Seeing strangers cohabit a tiny space without privacy, coupled with the constant threat of a variety of potential dangers, coming together without much resistance was wonderfully hopeful. The main difference I felt between what we see in reality television these days and the experiment was the element of competition. On the Acali there was a common goal of survival drawing the volunteers together, but with television programmes there is usually a prize at stake where undermining and selfish behaviour is encouraged. This sense of competition, I feel, is perpetuated in our daily lives by social media which functions as source to remind us all that someone out there is ‘better’ than us in some way, which keeps us oppressed and inclined to the same selfish behaviour in our daily lives to ‘get ahead’.
Watching the survivors (almost all women, only one of the men is still alive) speak candidly about emotional experiences and sharing personal revelations they had aboard the craft was equally emotional for me as a viewer. Considering they were telling each other these private recollections first the first time nearly half a century later seems foreign to a generation that has to broadcast everything down to the food on their plate (me included). There is a beauty in keeping things sacred.
Lindeen’s wonderful film should be seen by as many people as possible. It encourages contemplation in the audience about what makes us who we are as humans, and the potential of what good can be achieved by functioning as a collective. It’s in the ‘powers that be’ best interest to keep reminding us of the ways in which we’re different, when we really all want very similar things as human beings; seeing this experiment play out feels like an essential reminder to this. I left the cinema energised to create more positivity in my own environment. A common goal of peace doesn’t seem like such an impossible dream anymore.