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.

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…

bioko sitecore
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?


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.


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.


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.

In the words of the great Hortense Spillers: ‘unless one is free, love cannot and will not matter’

Bisila is not free. Africa is not free.

And this is my question and observation on the true meaning of love; this question has also been examined in an article by Panashe Chigumadzi who echoes 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. Love without freedom. Is not really love at all.


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

Hortense Spillers – Shades of Intimacy: Women in the Time of Revolution

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  1. An absolutely rivetting review that sums the whole book up well. I am 80% through the book on my kindle right now and was moved by the beautiful descriptions of Bisila enough to Google Bubi women! Maybe that says more about me than I’d like to admit. It would seem from your review that the movie is fairly close to the book in interpretation. I sympathised so much with Kilian’s character as similar to my own, having been an ex-patriate or overseas worker for many years. You sympathise with the labour force and the people, while taking a job that encourages the very system that enslaves, encourages its continuation. I have felt the same way with the TCN (Third Country Nationals) as they are known, whether they be from India, Indonesia, S.Africa, PNG, Chinese or wherever else I’ve worked. The views of other ex-pats have been similar to the colonists and I’ve never thought in that way, but felt guilty as I’ve had to go along with the system for my own survival, at times! I have had relationships along the way and they have all had an effect on my heart, no matter whether they were of the Sade type or Bisila and as Sade says to Kilian in the book, they still have ‘feelings.’ C’est la vie, I guess. It is not perfect but the experiences I’ve had have left me now aged 70 wishing to continue that life, rather than give up and retire, except now I put those experiences into books and writing. Characters I use in my novels are based on real people, not usually their real persona, but they are certainly visually in my heart when I write them into a story, and if I can still find them I always ask their permission to use them. Travel, mixing with other cultures, broadens the mind as well as forming your politics so much that at times I loathe my own people, class sytem, the injustices. It also makes you more liberal in outlook, in my case maybe would not be considered moral by the staid society which I come from. It is why I empathise with Kilian and Bisila, I’ve been there! Thank you immensely for teaching me more of my own cultural prejudices and for showing me that there is a movie available of the beautiful story that I’m reading.
    Brian George http://www.brianandbyrongeorge.com ; http://www.soulwriters.net

    • I am glad you found the article helpful. We all seem to write and think from our positionality, though travel does help with that. You have encouraged me to read the book now. I would like to see how the book deals with the timelines… Thank you so much for your comment, I really appreciate it

  2. You couldn’t have said it any better! Yet again white women are portrayed as innocent doe eyed angels while African women of course…. And of course, Bisila had to be light skinned (the actress is biracial), another color jab. She was a wonderful actress though.
    The poster just left me confused…
    It was a good movie, I want to see more beautiful stories set in colonial Africa. But as long as they’re directed by white people, they’ll be more left to be desired. It’s not really because of race, but an issue of perspective. A straight white male will direct a movie the way he sees the world; he’ll never see that world though the eyes of a woman or an African.
    I wasn’t surprised however, I started the movie knowing what I was about to witness. But what can I say? I love period dramas

  3. Just watched this movie on Netflix and although it was luscious to watch, it was very problematic in its portrayal as African women as either whores or kept women (Killian screams at his brother ‘Bisila is my woman,’ despite being married to Moshi and having not much agency in either relationship.) I agree with the portrayal of white women as innocent and the problematic over sexualisation of interracial relationships. In the present day, Bisila’s son strips off and acts out another common western fantasy, this time from a female westerner point of view. It would be so interesting to see this film directed by a black director and from a black point o ce. It would be a different film hoped with less of the stereotypical black as exotic sexualised body trope.

    • I really love your observations. Thank you for engaging. I wonder if you have read the book the film was made from? The book is different from the film in many ways, not perfect thought. But I feel of a Black woman had directed the film, it would have been so much better in terms of point of view.

  4. Just watched the movie on Netflix, and I was really marvelled at the way things where wrongly potrayed. Your article is brilliant, and you just pulled all the words right out my mouth. The true story about how colonialization destroyed africa was not displayed in this pictures. Europe is what it is today because of slavery and up till this day, they still enslave Africa but in a well modernized way.
    I hope one day the white man pays for their crimes. making this film by toning down the harshness of slavery, making white people the savior of Africa, casting a light skin girl,instead of a beautiful Guinea lady, displaying African men as thugs. And the poster, really disgusting, as the main character was so tiny to see….it was painfuI to watch. I love and I hate this movie at the same time.
    I hope a black director directs this type of movie next time.

  5. Wonderful plot, however there were loop holes. Bisila looks biracial and the scene in which Killian mafde reference to her hair, further drew attention to the fact that she was mixed. She is a good actress but her character was downplayed by her features. I am also not comfortable with the fact that African women were made to look promiscuous while white women appeared kept, African men were depicted as violent or thugs. Lastly, it broke my heart to see Jacobo kill a man and go scot free like Black lives dont matter.

  6. Greetings,
    I must say that your review was very interesting and thought provoking. I watched this movie but have not read the book and quite naturally the book will be a bit different as most often happens to books made into movies.
    I do think that you may be a bit too harsh on the movie’s movement thru that era. Although it was a bit hard for me to deal with the interracial relationships but that’s a personal bias.
    I often wonder why…. and then I think of how there is something a bit higher than our personal bias when it comes to why people come together. We are soul essence having a human experience so to me, Kilian and Bisilia need not necessarily have a long intro if they have been together in many other incarnations in different forms. Love recognizes the spirit and not the physical form in many cases when the attraction is inexplicably strong. I also thought of the fact that Kilian was born there and how his father “took” to the indigenous and knew their language.
    We may call them “culture vultures” if we look with a lens that is opaque or filtered, but if we look beyond the physical form and see the spirit, we may see a connection that is beyond our personal biases.
    Since it was a love story, a troubled one at that, I do think it may have taken the movie into 4-5 hours to cover the historical issues that colonialism brought to Africa. And in today’s Africa, we must not overlook as we do our spoiler alerts that many so called African Leaders are as colonized as their former oppressors if not more, by treating their own kind in deplorable ways. Equatorial Guinea is still shafted with the consequence of poor leadership, albeit, them being formerly colonized by several European Nations. We applaud their independence, however we must be honest and be assured that there has been some serious trouble and corruption in the land.
    If we look at this story, and point out the impact of colonization, can we as well beg to question, how and why did Africa fall to the European in the first place?
    I would also like to express that to me, I can understand the dichotomy between the aggressive black males and those that seemed supportive. Being of African descent in America, that stance troubles us to this day. It is as if the anger of injustice is suppressed for the sake of survival or extremely reacted to for the sake of humanness.
    On the other hand, European women in particular and especially during and before those times were most repressed, exploited and considered second class citizens who had to stay in their place, and especially as it relates to their interactions with men. Some of that came through even for the black women in this movie. Repression can bring out distortions in behavior presentations so that the repressed appear stilted and unfeeling as the human spirit’s initial reaction is to resist, but societal responses teaches early on resistance is futile, so I didn’t see the white women as more pristine than the black women, I saw them as more repressed and given the chance as was seen at the party where Julia let “her hair down”… she quickly returned to the status quo.
    I could go on and on, but all in all, I totally enjoyed the movie and your review of it garnered a varied response from me. Had me thinking and questioning and that is what I call a good review.
    Question, have you seen “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”? This was done by Italian film makers, and I think your review of it would be one worth reading. Thanks for reading this. Peace, Nana Baakan Agyiriwah

    • Thank you very much for engaging with the review, I am delighted that you enjoyed it and also thought differently from me about some of it. We do experience reality through our own lenses. I have not seen Uncle Tom’s Cabin yet, but it is on my list.

  7. Hi, I’ve just seen the movie. I started watching this movie because I had previously read the book which I find fascinating and which I liked precisely because of the things the movie lacks of. The adaptation to the screen is simply… very bad (also, watching it dubbed it’s not a good idea, sorry) to say it nicely. My recommendation: read the novel. It might not be perfect, but it’s much better. Through the novel you get to understand the characters (from both Europeans and Africans), the historical and political context and the blanks in the movie.
    Also, some extra context:
    1) the story of the novel is based on the author’s family history, and 2) by the time Equatorial Guinea became and independent country, Spain was an empoverished country with a dictatorship born from a bloody civil war that had took place 30 years before. There was not freedom nor equality nor civil rights, and many Spaniards emigrated to other richer European countries to work, but a few went to Guinea instead. Macías, the first dictator of Equatorial Guinea (and who, unlike the books, is not even named once during the whole film), was a terrible tyrant because he had a good master, Francisco Franco. All what happened after the independence, including the persecutions against dissidents and bubbies and the expulsion of Nigerians is well explained in the book.
    Apart from this, and just for clarification, the POV of African characters is also explained and understood in the book and not only Bisila’s, but also Osé’s, Simon’s, Sade’s, Nelson’s, Gustavo’s, Waldo’s and of course Iniko’s and Laha’s. Probably it’s not perfect since the author is a white Spanish woman narrating a story inspired on her family’s, but it has nothing to do with the shitty movie.

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