From The Raft (courtesy Metrograph Pictures)

The phrase “sex raft” possesses phonetic magic — a distant cousin to “cellar door,” endlessly repeatable, easily slotted in to replace the eponymous lines in “Love Shack” or “Car Wash.” This quality would be the bane of Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genovés’s life, as such reductive reads from the media and public colored all conversation and understanding of the mad Fitzcarraldoan experiment for which he’s now known. But as simplified as the assessment “He made a sex raft” may have been, it was not wrong. Genovés and 10 subjects set off across the Atlantic on a small sea craft to foster a sui generis set of behavioral conditions, and they did indeed have sex on that raft. A lot of it, in fact.

Marcus Lindeen’s new documentary The Raft ping-pongs between 1973 and the present day, juxtaposing the unfolding insanity of the seafaring journey with recollections from the participants still alive today, as well as their recreations of the events carried out on a scale replica of the raft. The Act of Killing approach of tasking the survivors with reliving the strangest — and in more than a few cases, most traumatic — chapter of their lives provides a valuable counterpoint to the version portrayed in Genovés’s journal. While his grand experiment amounted to much more than the “sex raft” laughed off by laypeople, it sure wasn’t the wrongfully maligned would-be groundbreaker the researcher envisioned either.

From The Raft (courtesy Metrograph Pictures)

Lindeen slowly unspools the strange tale of this voyage into the psychological unknown, a literal instance of mission drift that began as an inquest drawing on Zimbardo and Milgram, but ended as a dictatorial power trip from the imagination of William Golding. A somewhat well-respected academic whose reputation ultimately endured this bizarre footnote, Genovés convinced an international array of volunteers that they’d be breaking open the gates to brave new insights on why humans do the things we do. His stated objective was to synthesize a sociological cure for violence. In actuality, they’d signed themselves up for a mix of indentured servitude and recreational abuse at the hands of a man with a god complex.

Genovés concocted elaborate humiliation scenarios for his captive passengers (the film’s elucidation of the toilet situation is, in a word, haunting) under the guise of academic curiosity. No less sinister is his attempt to revise history and cast himself as a misunderstood visionary. Using the nightly news set’s crass “sex raft” refrain as a protective shield, he stretched to place himself in a lineage with the likes of Masters and Johnson, with geniuses who dared to challenge societal mores in the righteous pursuit of truth and knowledge. This is a common trope of documentary cinema about STEM subjects, the forward-thinker unappreciated in their own small-minded time. Genovés capitalized on this concept’s popularity to save face (one gets the sense he doesn’t quite buy his own bullshit).

From The Raft (courtesy Metrograph Pictures)

This leaves Lindeen to right posterity’s ship. His in-depth analysis not only does the work of telling this odd story, but also of reacting to a certain vein of nonfiction film. He makes the atypical assertion that sometimes a charlatan really is no more than he seems. It’s the antithesis of Great Mind bio-docs parroting the same arc of iconoclasm. Genovés’s career hardly took a ding from this debacle, leading him to sign the influential Seville Statement on Violence in the next decade. By constructing an alternative to this narrative and giving a voice to the wounded yet resilient people left in its wake, Lindeen brings empathy and perhaps something like justice to what would otherwise be nothing more than a sex raft.

The Raft is now playing at the Metrograph (13 Ludlow Street, Manhattan) and other select theaters.

Charles Bramesco is a freelance film and TV critic living in Brooklyn. A former staff writer for Rolling Stone, his work has been featured in the New York Times, New York Magazine, the Guardian, and many...