4 March 2010

Cape Verde: Film Exposes Portugal's Exploitative Labour Practices in Africa

The 2010 Pan African Film Festival (PAFF) in Los Angeles featured the world premier of Contract by Cape Verdean filmmaker Guenny K. Pires.

Contract is a documentary film that tells the story of thousands of Cape Verdean contract workers who traveled to the Portuguese colony of Sao Tome and Principe to work in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Cape Verdeans, and workers from Portugal's other African colonies, were forced or coerced into contracts obligating them to work on coffee and cacao plantations on the islands of Sao Tome and Principe. After decades of brutally hard labor, contract workers were often forced to stay in Sao Tome and Principe, unable to secure passage home.

Many of the Cape Verdean contract workers featured in the film still hold on to memories of home. Filmmaker Guenny Pires blends the stories of Cape Verdean families affected by the contract labor system with interviews with experts to tell this little known chapter in Africa's history.

The Cape Verdeans interviewed, including Pires' own uncle, share that after decades in Sao Tome and Principe, many have maintained their spiritual ties to their home. After marriages, children, and new lives established in Sao Tome and Principe, many of the Cape Verdean contract workers shown in the film expressed a strong desire to return home.

At the heart of Contract is the family story of the filmmaker himself. The film documents his journey to reunite his family after his uncle left for Sao Tome and Principe decades earlier. The emotional journey of Guenny Pires' family was the most salient aspect of the film.

Pires re-tells his uncle's departure for Sao Tome and Principe and the eventual loss of contact between his uncle and his family. Pires' speaks with various relatives and narrates the impact losing his uncle had on the family. This deeply emotional journal to reunite the family is one of the film's strengths.

Other aspects of the film are at times disjointed and difficult to follow. The film often jumps from personal story to historical documentary without warning. In addition, some of the experts interviewed for the film gave information that was culturally inaccurate and factually unclear. Portugal's colonial policies in Africa have been researched by several scholars, scholars who could have provided the insight needed to put the film in proper context.

The film will likely inspire viewers to want to learn more about Portugal's policy of bringing workers from its other African colonies to Sao Tome and Principe. Portugal, one of the last European countries to leave Africa did so in 1975, with no regard for the thousands of workers stranded in Sao Tome and Principe. The film provided a great opportunity to clearly outline the experiences of Cape Verdeans and other Lusophone Africans in Sao Tome and Principe, but fell a bit short of this.

This is one of Guenny Pires' first films and his passion for the fate and lives of the Cape Verdeans in Sao Tome and Principe is clear. The story of Pires' family is compelling and emotional. While Contract was premiered at PAFF, Pires says that the film is a work in progress. The film, even with issues of clarity and continuity, is one of the only documentaries to deal with the exploitative experiences of contract workers in Sao Tome and Principe.

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