I am constantly looking for films set in colonial Africa. For some reason they are very rare. I wonder why? There is an old movie starring Pierce Brosnan (one time 007). Mister Johnson. And not many more. However, I found one recently on Netflix. ‘Palm Trees in the Snow‘ It is a lovely Spanish language historical romantic drama set on Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea [not Guinea Conakry, and not Guinea Bissau, and definitely not Papua New Guinea].

It would be a good idea to watch it (if you have access) before reading this article. Let  me call out Baba Spoilers.

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Baba Spoilers, Announcer Extraordinaire

Spoilers O! tueh tueh

Spoilers O! tueh tueh

Spoilers O! tueh tueh

Spoilers O! tueh tueh

Spoilers O! tueh tueh

Spoilers O! tueh tueh

 

In other words, there will be massive movie spoilers in this article.

A little background information about Bioko Island: It used to be called Otcho by the Bubi people who have lived there since approximately the 7th century BC. In 1494 it was renamed Fernando Pó in honour of  Portuguese navigator Fernão do Pó after he ‘claimed’ it as a  Portuguese colony. The Portuguese developed the island for sugarcane crops among other things. Fast forward a few hundred years, during which the Dutch turn up briefly as well. In  1778, under the Treaty of El Pardo, Portugal ceded Bioko, Annobón, and the Guinea coast, Rio Muni, to Spain, together forming modern Equatorial Guinea, in exchange for territory on the American continent. Then the British also make an appearance. One tiny island, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, British. (Why only them???) But from 1843, the Spanish regained control of Bioko, using it as a dumping ground for undesirable Afro-Cubans and Spanish people they didn’t like. From this time till independence in 1968, Spain developed large cocoa plantations for which thousands of West African workers were imported as labourers. And here begins our story…

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Map of Bioko Island; Equatorial Guinea

The historical scenes on Bioko in the film begin in 1953. It’s a film of a book. I am assuming you have watched the film and realise that it is a very moving story. Good acting and exceptionally beautiful visually. [I would watch it for the visuals only]. Also good music. Bisila’s song is very emotional.  I really love the scene with the turtles on the beach and the accompanying metaphor spoken by Anton. ‘One never forgets where one was born.‘ As you can see from the map, Bioko is very close to Nigeria. And so, Nigerians turn up a lot in the story. When there is a party, the Nigerians are in charge of it. Naturally. So generally, I would recommend it. Please watch it and let me know what you think of it.

There a few things I have issues with though. (Obvs! I have written a nearly 2000 word article!) For a film set in Equatorial Guinea, we hear very little from actual Equatorial Guineans. All the scenes are focused on the foreigners. Despite this being a love story, even the poster does not centre the heroine. Erasure and gaze are deployed here. Where is the centre? Who is the story about? Who is it being told for?

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It is worrying that the black men are largely depicted as aggressive, hypersexed and mute. Colourism also comes into play; the darker ones speak less and are more violent. Bisila’s husband, Mosi, is practically silent throughout the whole nearly 3-hour movie. As a key part of the central love triangle that seems a bit reductive. In contrast, did dastardly Jacobo really need that much screen time? Gustavo, who seems to be the resident African nationalist has barely any lines. We know that the Spaniards are fearful of the political change of independence, but what about the perspectives of the people of Bioko and Equatorial Guineans? Yes, it is a love story, but there was enough room and time to fill in the gaps in the political context especially as that political context has a profound effect on the story and the protagonists.

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I would definitely have loved to hear more of  Bisila’s thoughts. What does she see in Kilian? When the story gets to her bit of narration, there is a foregone conclusion that she has feelings for Kilian, with no foreshadowing of that in their prior interactions. Of which they had very few. He did not even know her name! Also the oversexualisation of interracial encounters in the movie was a bit problematic. Julia & Manuel for e.g. don’t get the same treatment. It felt like a metaphor for the exotification and fetishization of Africa.

There was some misogynoir going on there with the gaze on Bisila’s body. She was undressed for a large part of the movie. A hint of fetishization and exotification again seemed to be in play. So, this feels to me like a metaphor. Africa constantly being stripped and laid bare, open to a certain type of exploitation often couched as benevolent. In most of the movie Bisila lacked agency and this lack of agency was not really addressed.

Palmeras en la Nieve (2015)

I watched the movie with the English dub, if you do not understand Spanish, you can either do that or watch with subtitles. One thing that completely jarred, with the English dub, was the dubbed voices of the black people. Without exception they all spoke with African American accents. ALL OF THEM. It was so incongruous that I found it difficult to concentrate on what they were saying. Close your eyes you may be watching Atlanta… or something similar.

The movie used a very light hand on the nature of colonialism and the colonial plantations. This is basically the context of the action in the movie. And it was mostly shuffled off to the background, and the way in which the power dynamics of that context affected the protagonists and their choices I think was largely discounted. I wonder if this is the same in the book. If you know let me know. But it felt like a movie about a flood in which no mention is made of anyone got wet, or a setting based on a towering inferno where no mention is made of burning people burning or a movie set against the backdrop of a famine where access to food is not really addressed.

So a little bit of political context and some legal points (I look at everything through the eyes of the law, I am after all, a lawyer and a teacher #canthelpmyself. Sue me. If you dare). One thing people seem to forget, or are unaware of is the fact that White-owned plantations existed not only in the US, but in most of the Americas, as well as across Africa and Asia. When the slave trade was outlawed, these plantations did not cease to exist, and people who had engaged in slavery – slave and plantation owners – still needed cheap labour for these plantations. This was vital, not just to those individuals, but also the nations for which their produce provided a lot of revenue. To ensure that economies did not tank, colonial governments gave plantation owners low-cost land grants. They also forced the local population to work on the plantations. Monopolies were created by preventing the sale of crops grown by other farmers. These state-supported plantations often produced most of a colony’s exports. Similar in many respects to plantation slavery. These labour relationships were sometimes called indentured servitude – so, not slavery. That’s the ‘beautiful’ thing about the law. As the example by Sundiata illustrates:

‘the labourer found himself working for the period of the advance, three months, as unpaid labour’  [Sundiata, 1974: 104]

Planters detained labour but failed to pay their contracts, resulting in a situation of de facto slavery.

So it is interesting how the legal abolition of a thing (in this case slavery) often results in the evolution of the thing a step away from the legal definition of what it used to be, but in spirit, more or less the same thing.  Such that legally the doers of the newly made thing cannot be convicted for doing the abolished thing, but by taking just one tiny step away from the old doing, the old results are kept alive. (Gregorio’s use of the whip is many shades of Kunta Kinte and Roots.) This also exposes the dangers of naming things. Once a named thing is legally defined and confined, to be the named thing, a thing must fit into all the boundaries of the definition. If it does not, then, it is not the abolished thing. It is a new thing for which new resistances must be mounted. And the cycle continues. Thus using indentured labour on African plantations was (legally) not the same as using enslaved Africans’ labour on plantations in the Americas. But in truth the power relations remained largely the same.

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And this brings to the crux of my article. It is amazing how a narrative has developed suggesting that interracial relationships signify a move towards ending racism, when we know that heterosexual relationships do not signify less sexism. In many cases, they actually just signify misogyny. We must always talk about the power dynamics. Without discussing the context above, Kilian and Bisila’s relationship is not examined with any reference to the power dynamics between them. Even though some of the horrors of the system are shown, there is an attempt to cast Kilian as an innocent caught in a system beyond his control. But he is still complicit in the system and benefits from it. Gregorio ‘provokes’ Kilian to the point where Kilian violently whips an African. Innocent? When he sees Bisila for the first time, he is in the process of ‘falling in love’ with the sights, sounds and smells of the country and she appears as a physical embodiment of this desire for an exotic Africa.

And this is my question and observation on the true meaning of love; this has been examined in an article by Panashe Chigumadzi who articulated my feelings thus:

‘love without justice, without a reckoning with the history that has created our present realities, is not really love at all.’ Panashe Chigumadzi

Palm Trees in the Snow is a beautiful and romantic movie, in which the romance is so overwhelming that we may fail to note the absence of love. A love that does not acknowledge the history that created Bisila and Kilian’s realities. Love without justice.

 

Bibliography

Sundiata, Ibrahim K. “Prelude to Scandal: Liberia and Fernando Po, 1880–1930.” The Journal of African History 15, no. 1 (1974): 97-112.

 

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