The Raft documentary

An Unknown Success – documentary review

I recently saw an interesting documentary called The Raft through the Dutch documentary channel 2 DOC The Raft tells the story of a scientific experiment from 1973 that looked into human violence, conflict and sexual attraction, and what it takes to reach a state of peace.

Eleven subjects – six women and five men – took part in the experiment, that consisted of floating on a raft called the Alcali across the Atlantic Ocean from the Canary Islands to Mexico. In this situation, the participants were stuck for a prolonged period of time in a place where it was impossible to leave, so hopefully their true nature could be studied.

The Mexican social anthropologist Santiago Genovés, who’d set up the experiment, had thought that – in theory – there should be as much conflict in the group as possible. In that manner, subjects were selected from all corners of the world, with different religious and cultural backgrounds. Also, many ‘handsome’ subjects were selected as this was also thought to increase conflict. As a researcher, Genovés was also part of the crew on board the Alcali. One aspect of the experiment, was that women were selected for the key positions. The captain, the frogman and the doctor aboard the raft were all women.

Once the experiment began, Genovés noticed after a few weeks at sea to his surprise that the atmosphere on board was quite peaceful. In the period that followed, the researcher began to display such provocative behavior in order to elicit conflict, that some subjects even considered murdering Genovés.

One of Genovés provocative actions, was to discharge the Swedish captain Maria and appoint himself captain of the raft. She would look back on this (with some frustration, it looked to me) as something that was in fact mutiny and as such a punishable crime.

Fortunately, Santiago Genovés was not murdered by his research subjects. There was a near-collision with a cargo ship and in this emergency situation, Genovés proved to be unsuitable as a self-appointed captain, as he had no idea how to deal with this. This gave Maria, the female captain, an opportunity to take the helm – literally. She was able to instruct the other subjects in such a way that a fatal collision was avoided.

After this occurrence, Genovés had lost his authority. He became ill and withdrawn, and began to neglect his experiment, the actual research he did. From how I understood the documentary, the subjects heaved a sigh of relief and the peace and solidarity returned aboard the raft. Without much further trouble, they reached in great unity the other side of the Atlantic ocean.

Remarkable about this experiment is that on the surface, it may seem to be a ‘failure’, but a closer inspection reveals a different view of the facts. When there was no violence aboard the raft, Genovés himself tried to provoke conflict. It didn’t seem to be apparent to the researcher that, in spite of his attempts to do otherwise, the subjects had successfully created a peaceful situation. Or, as one of the subjects, Fé Seymour, says at the end of the documentary:

I think Santiago’s experiment was a huge success. But I think he missed it, because we could talk to each other with sophistication, depth and understanding and love, and isn’t that the answer to violence? […] All the conflicts in the world are always ‘them’ and ‘us’. And we started out as ‘them and us’ and we became ‘us’.

In an interview with the maker of this documentary, Marcus Lindeen, he was asked what he’d learned from this project. He answered that he thought the world would be better off when women were in leadership positions. I feel the same, but even when a male researcher dreams up an experiment with women in key roles, he apparently still tries to steal his leadership back; unfortunately with mutiny if he has to. Perhaps that gender roles played a part in this, too. All things considered, I find the documentary The Raft a story of hope. It proves we are able to coexist much more peacefully than we ever thought possible.