Where Sugar is Gold

in 64nd International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Maximilian Schäffer

The International Film Critics’ Prize at this year’s Dok Leipzig went to Words of Negroes (Paroles de nègres, 2021), by French director Sylvaine Dampierre. Her fourth full-length documentary portrays a self-managed sugar factory and its operators on the island of Marie-Galante in the overseas department of Guadeloupe. The workers, themselves descendants of slaves, some of them still independent small farmers, are proud of their hard physical day’s work. They alone know how to keep the old production plant going, shoveling ash for hours, firing the refinery’s furnaces and patting themselves on the back. Then they go back to the fields to cut sugar cane. It’s a workload that probably no one can imagine choosing of their own free will. Then, Dampierre proposes to the workers to recite texts of a historical slave trial that took place on their island as part of an amateur theater.

This approach, not particularly original at first glance, develops an increasingly fascinating momentum. Soon the workers begin to identify with their roles and translate their passages into Créole of their own accord (into the “words of negroes,” as it were, which explains the English title of the film). Meanwhile, in the background, the factory, their livelihood, groans incessantly, falling apart a little more each day. The camera of Renaud Personnaz, most recently responsible for the cinematography of Stalin’s Couch (Le divan de Staline, 2016), keeps a steady, long take. Screws loosen, boilers rattle, embers and smoke make up the faces of the grafters.

Every now and then, the film switches from a nineteenth-century illusion to impressions from the supposedly eighteenth century. Namely, when cattle carts carry off megalomaniac bales of sugar cane, or when one of the farmers tries to persuade his ox to cooperate with a lot of feeling and gentle force.

Concerning the age depicted here, confusion reigns – these are images like from post-Soviet Russia between archaic and autogestion. The producers in the cooperative fight day after day against the windmill world market. In dignity and freedom, they toil diligently for rent and cigarettes. They know that, nowadays, they are no longer slaves – this is the only thing that finally distinguishes the 21st century from the previous ones. No more dungeons, no more starvation, no more reward for obedience from the master. Dampierre has the recitatives played in from offstage in places; instead of music, historical lament mantras punctuate the production. One of the laborers refers to the finished sugar as “gold”; another notes that sugar no longer fills anyone’s stomach in this decade. Neither the farmers nor the factory workers benefit from it, and certainly not people who are both in personal union.

Between frustration and hope, the free blacks go to the next shift. The sweat and the cane have become sugar and rum. The film ends impressively with a church service for machines. Sometimes only prayer helps when the price of sugar rises almost synchronously with the cost of living. But Dampierre’s film is depressing only from this perspective. The upright attitude of the sugar cane miners, their autonomous voices and mutual respect without harassment give courage in a time when slave owners who have become invisible are omnipresent.

Maximilian Schäffer
Edited by Pamela Jahn