The bitter story of our sugarBy Radel Paredes
Cebu Daily News
Whenever Negros is mentioned it is not sweet thoughts that come to mind but the bitter image of the emaciated “Negros Child” popularized in the media during the height of the sugar crisis in the mid-80s. That and the equally iconic photos of the Escalante Massacre in 1985, where close to 30 protesting civilians, mostly sakadas (sugar plantation workers), were shot by paramilitary troops, became one of the symbols of poverty and injustice that led me and many of my generation to activism.
My brother who was first to join the student movement while studying in Silliman University, wrote letters from his exposure with the sakadas on how they found several ways to cook sugarcane to survive as there was nothing else to eat in the huge plantation. We have since left the movement but the images of the malnourished child and the corpses in Escalante stuck. Thus I watched with curiosity Jay Abello’s “Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar” during the opening of the 1st Cebu International Documentary Film Festival in Ayala Onstage Theater. I wanted to find out what his “inside story” might be, having come from a family of hacienderos.
The film begins by tracing the present sugar crisis from how the Spaniards established the hacienda system to mass produce sugar as the country opened to world trade in the middle of the 19th century. Then there was the rapid mechanization of plantations during the American period which made us one of the world’s largest producers of sugar and consequently brought prosperity to the Negrense elite. This partnership with the Americans made the landlords a target of the Japanese in the Second World War and many of them were said to have joined their workers in the guerrilla movement.
This early part is told with a montage of old photos, archival footage, and comic reenactments that demonstrates wit and a film style that borders on caricature. Yet, save for occasional insertions of photos, this montage is not sustained. The reenactments that add light humor in previous interviews give way to a series of talking heads in the depiction of events following World War II. I thought I’d have a sugar high but I had to fight off sleep in those chatty sequences that could have been perked up by frequent changes of camera angles or cutting to more off-cam scenes while continuing the dialogue track.
Unless monotony was used to dramatize the dangers of monocropping, the repetitive use of talking heads failed to alert us about the climax of the sugar’s history: how short-lived prosperity during the industry’s return after the war would end with its first major crisis—the imposition of a quota on sugar. The film then delves into how corruption in the government regulating agencies during Martial Law only aggravated the situation. Apart from the rather conventional use of photo inserts, this part would have been enlivened by recalling the comic reenactments.
Towards the end, the film delves into how the industry struggles with the entry of competitors like Thailand and Cuba which offer much lower prices. It then turns to an even bleaker prospect: the move by the ASEAN to lift tariffs on sugar trade in 2015, which means that cheaper Thai sugar will soon be flooding local retail markets.
To educate people on this threat, the Negros Pureza Foundation, a group of landlords to whom the Abello’s family belongs, commissioned him to make this documentary. Abello said he took a neutral stand in the film, announcing in the poster itself that there is “no sugar coating”. Still it is obvious that the very people who produced the film are also the ones who appear the most number of times in it. It is their analysis of the problem that serves as the main perspective of the film. They blame mainly the corruption in government and the agrarian reform program that grants land to sakadas who do not have enough capital and management experience to run their own sugar business.
Perhaps the only acts of auteurial autonomy are the few times when Abello exercises self-criticism by attacking the abuses of some landlords. He tries to get the other side, interviewing workers who complain that their wage (often lower than the mandated minimum wage ) could hardly put food on the table or send their kids to school. In one scene, the camera shows workers saving on cooking oil by roasting dried fish in an open fire and then eating it with a bowl of rice infested with flies. This is a moment of photographic serendipity, although perhaps an extreme close up of the food with the flies would have nailed it.
The voice over too is quite distracting. Abello could have chosen to turn down the sound of turn it off as he may cut to an extreme close up of the flies swarming on the food to allow viewers a moment of reflection. But focusing on such telling details in lieu of narration does not seem to be the style of the director who prefers long and middle shots (for interviews). The use of Soviet montage for a film that seems to be an apology for the privileged class would have added a sense of self-irony that could actually strengthen its credibility as a self-critical account.
Credibility indeed is the main problem of this film which purports to be “fair”. The director gets the side of the workers but only on such issues as wages, and petty abuses of their masters. He trails the life of a sakada family but only to use it as an example of land reform’s futility. Then he allows the planters to defend the “feudalism” in the hacienda citing a psychological need for patronage. “We don’t treat them as workers,” one landlord says in an interview. “We treat them as family. So we have to take care of them.” Such image of the landlord as benevolent godfather is the easy excuse for the economic trap caused by over a century of monocropping.
Except for a passing comment on how the abuses of some hacienderos have contributed to the insurgency in the island, Abello never went out of his way to actually interview his class enemy: the militant Left. He never bothered to investigate their accusations of atrocities committed against the sakadas, their own theory of feudalism and proposed alternative to government’s agrarian reform.
In other words, despite the director’s pronouncements, the film remains one-sided, even propagandistic. It is not a surprise, for you are not expected to bite the hand the feeds you. The disclaimer on the poster is obviously defensive for the film still remains rather too sweet for what is actually a bitter pill.