Sugar is one of those foodstuffs we take for granted today, but it was once so rare and valuable that it was known in Europe as “white gold.” The tropical New World, including Brazil and many Caribbean islands, provided the ideal environment to cultivate sugar cane. Growing, harvesting and processing cane is a labor-intensive process, and one that European colonizers had no desire to perform themselves; instead, they enslaved people from the Africa, put them on ships, and forced them to perform this difficult, strenuous labor. France even created the Code Noir to define the conditions of slavery in their colonies.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and sugar cane is still an important crop in the Caribbean. It’s also an extremely valuable crop, but one whose profits tend to flow to wealthy families and/or large companies. The lives of the people who work in the fields, in contrast, are governed by a social and economic system not dissimilar to sharecropping. Those conditions are examined in Juan Alfonso Zapata’s documentary Cane Malice (Mal de Caña), which was financed in part by a grant from the Graham Foundation.
Cane Malice looks at the lives of the Haitian laborers who work in the sugar cane fields of the Dominican Republic. Many are undocumented, despite living in the Dominican Republic for generations, and live in small company towns called bateys, where the only available housing are shacks owned by “The Company” that owns the fields. If you don’t work in the fields, you have no place to live, so, predictably, everyone older than a child works in the fields. The quality of housing provided depends on a worker’s position in the company—people with better jobs (like supervisors) get better housing, possibly containing only one family and including running water, while ordinary field workers have to cram into shared shacks with no such amenities, collecting their water each day from a common pump. Electricity is a distant dream—one man recalls knowing of a single worker, a superintendent, who has electric lighting in his home.
The Haitian workers are isolated from the rest of the country, and even from other workers who don’t live in their own batey. That suites the bosses, because people who can’t get together can’t organize to improve their living conditions. There’s no medical care, and the local school only goes to fourth grade, pretty much eliminating any chance that the worker’s children will avoid their parents’ fate. You might think that people living under those conditions would be perpetually angry, but the workers interviewed for this film display a quiet endurance coupled with the strong belief that they are more than their living conditions. And, rather remarkably, this grim existence is very likely an improvement over what they experienced in Haiti.
Cane Malice is the third film from director Zapata, a native of the Dominican Republic, who is also an architect and visual artist. Both sensibilities are on display in Cane Malice, which pays particular attention to the built environment of the workers, and contrasts it through a series of helicopter (or drone) shots with modern construction in the island’s cities and the luxurious beach resorts that are beloved of tourists. He also finds beauty even in the cane fields where these workers labor for the benefits of others. Above all, he respects the dignity of his subjects, who haven’t let their difficult lives become their only story. | Sarah Boslaugh
Cane Malice is available for on-demand viewing as part of the 24th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs June 2-6, 2021. Further information about festival passes and tickets is available from the festival web site.