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Words of Negroes review – sorcery trial documentary raises ghosts of slavery | Movies

The past returns in all its ugliness and torment in Sylvaine Dampierre’s rigorous documentary which challenges the preconceived notion that the march of time automatically parallels the march of progress. In 1842 in the Guadeloupe archipelago, an enslaved man named Sébastien was accused of sorcery by his master, and left to die in his cell. Centuries later, workers at a sugar factory in Marie-Galante, the island where Sébastien died, read out transcipts from the trial surrounding his death.

In opening a portal to the cruelty suffered by Sébastien at the hands of his masters, who were acquitted, the film draws a link to labour exploitation endured by the factory workers in modern-day Marie-Galante. Their jobs are precarious and expendable. As employment opportunities on the island are scarce, the workers have little choice but to be subjected to gruelling conditions for inadequate wages. Scenes where the men harvest sugar cane under the burning sun eerily mirror passages from the historical court documents, which describe the physical toil of field work in harrowing detail. Slavery is long abolished, yet the current system of exploitation continues to leave little agency to the workers.

Wrapped in a cacophony of hissing sounds and grinding metals, sequences shot inside the factory have a disquieting beauty, as they simultaneously evoke the rhythm of the workers’ daily rituals and reveal the bosses’ neglect for their wellbeing. Technologically outdated, and perhaps even dangerous to operate, some machines seem as old as the factory itself, which opened in 1996. In raising awareness of the hazardous environment experienced by the workers, Dampierre’s film powerfully traces how the hierarchies of the past continue to foster social inequalities in the present.

Words of Negroes is available from 10 March on True Story.

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Photo by Xu Haiwei on Unsplash