SIFF Film Review – Sugarcane Shadows
Taking place on the small island nation of Mauritius, Sugarcane Shadows works hard to get across its message about workers losing not just their jobs but their way of life. Yet the message ends up muddled in too much time spent on the film itself and a lack of intriguing characters. Marco (Danny Bhowaneedin), a forty to fifty year old worker at a sugar cane mill, and his friends are having to deal with the fact that the factory is closing and are waiting to see if management comes through for future jobs as promised. It is clear early that the higher ups do not really care about them but want to keep the peace as best they can so they can move forward with plans to build luxury homes.
Marco and his friends spend time waiting by sponging off of a local grocer who wants to help but has a business to run. Besides that Marco tries to look after Bissoon (Raj Bumma Put), an old man who loves the land and the raising and cutting of sugar cane and knows nothing else, who takes what is happening particularly hard and may be losing his sense of reality. He and Marco have a close relationship as Marco takes him to work and looks after him like he is a parent in his autumn years. Besides that Marco also has a few moments with the boss’s wife who lives across from him, but it isn’t developed in any way to give Marco or his situation any sense of change or give him more depth as a character in this situation.
Director David Constantin pulled off an interesting trick in shooting a lot of the movie in silence at the beginning that kept me curious about what exactly was going on. Seeing signs that things were changing around the town were intermixed with scenes of people simply going to work. For a while this worked in the film’s favor with us being able to soak in events and avoid a lot of exposition. His camera is able to create a clear sense of this town and pacing wise does some really good work, slowly showing how badly things are starting to happen.
If the film had been a short instead of a feature the message would have ended up being stronger. Coming in at a mere eighty-eight minutes it ironically feels like a lot of time was wasted and yet I cannot say what needs to go. It appeared throughout that there were strong moments but then just as many times it felt like the same message was being repeated over and over and it simply got dull. The other problem is that the journey with these characters is not so much a deep study of who they are but more about seeing how an entire society starts to fall apart in big ways but also in smaller moments. While effective in getting across its message when the film wants us to care about these characters, it becomes harder since they are not really characters but more like personality types. We have the jerk boss, the guy fighting the system, etc. They are not intrinsically interesting even if the situation is.
Marco is actually the worst offender here because the film really tries to give him more to do dealing with the women around him, including one who lives with him but never talks. Her presence is never explained and I was actually curious if she existed or was somehow a figment of his imagination or memory. There is also a moment that changes Marco’s progression in the film completely, which changed the dynamic of the story of watching how these people are dealing with the lack of work, and grinds his story to a halt. While unwanted, the film then proceeds to undo that change in one of the most unrealistic ways possible. Adding to that we are given new knowledge about Marco that really doesn’t add anything to the finale and seems to be there to add weight but in the end did the opposite by being so convoluted.
I have many mixed thoughts about this film. While creating a portrait of the loss of a way of life and how it devastates a community has power to it, it also starts to get dull when that is all we see and never builds on this in a meaningful way. The weak ending also left me less inclined to look favorably on what had come before including scenes that take away from the message the film seemed to be going for all along. We have some nice detail that allows us to really see the way lives are being affected even if the packaging around the whole is less than its parts.