Emotions in Life and in the Films of Euzhan Palcy
By Alice Bernstein
As I've been showing in relation to my life, what Aesthetic Realism teaches about emotions is true about people in all countries throughout the centuries. The emotions we are hoping for—thrilling, lasting, pride-giving emotions—arise from respect for reality, wanting to know and be fair to it. But there is also a hope to be important by lessening meaning: contempt, the ugliest, most harmful emotion. Our choice for contempt in everyday life, Aesthetic Realism teaches, makes people miserable and cruel. And globally contempt takes many forms including economic injustice, racism and war. I love seeing that we can learn from art how to have true, strengthening emotions. The basis is in this principle stated by Eli Siegel, "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." In his definitive lecture, Aesthetic Realism As Beauty: the Cinema, he said:
Euzhan Palcy's films cause great emotions. I'll comment here on three: Sugar Cane Alley (1984), about the yearnings of poor families in Martinique; A Dry White Season (1989), about South Africa under apartheid; and the 1998 Disney television movie, Ruby Bridges—A Real American Hero, about the child who first desegregated a Louisiana public school. Ms. Palcy's films powerfully encourage our respect for people who have been seen so contemptuously. They make clear the urgent need to study the Aesthetic Realism explanation of contempt as the most weakening, poisonous emotion. Eli Siegel explained that contempt is the cause of the profit system: the use of human beings for another's gain; and of racism, the feeling “because you're different from me, I can despise you.” I learned that these horrors begin with the ordinary way a child, for instance, can stick out her tongue at another, or the way a wife can finish her husband's sentences. I myself once acted as if other people's feelings were beneath me. I'm grateful that my contempt was criticized in Aesthetic Realism classes, enabling me to change.
Euzhan Palcy was born in 1957 in Martinique, an overseas department of France in the Caribbean (population 350,000). Her father worked in a pineapple factory and her parents struggled to educate their six children. She said of her early love for cinema:
At 14 she read Joseph Zobel's novel, La Rue Cases Negres about poor black families on plantations owned by white French colonialists. Her passion to bring this storyt to the screen was the beginning of the Martinican cinema. She went to Paris where she earned degrees in literature at the Sorbonne and in film at the Vaugirard School.
In 1983, at age twenty-six, she returned home. On a tiny budget, using 800 local residents, two professional actors, and borrowed equipment, Euzhan Palcy made Sugar Cane Alley. It won prizes at the 1984 Venice and Cannes Film Festivals and is now a classic.
The film, set in the 1930s, is about eleven-year-old Jose, an orphan living with his grandmother, M'Man Tine, in a shack near the sugar cane fields. When a girl accidentally breaks M'Man Tine's precious sugarbowl, the tragedy shows vividly the insanity of a profit economy: people who cut sugar cane cannot afford sugar themselves. Education was the one escape for a black child from a life of brutal labor, but few scholarships were given. Every moment these children and their families have a choice: to use what they endure to respect the world or to have contempt. The film's great power arises from the fact that respect wins so often.
Garry Cadenat as Jose beautifully portrays a boy's fight between contempt and respect, mischief and kindness. Jose passionately wants knowledge. He cares for Medouze, an old man who remembers Africa and being sold into slavery as a child. Medouze keeps the past alive and he explains to the children that their parents have exchanged one form of slavery for another. He says, “The law forbids [the owners] from beating us, but it doesn't forbid them from cheating us out of our pay.” He teaches the children to use plants for food and medicine. He inspires respect for nature and life as he explains, "You can kill an insect, but try making it go again." His love for the earth, including the very sugar cane that sapped his strength, stirred me deeply. Medouze is acted with exquisite dignity and warmth by the great African actor, Douta Seck.
This film deeply honors the emotions of the Martinican people, as Euzhan Palcy composes tragedy and comedy, ugliness and beauty in a simple way that is at once moving and “the most rigid art.”
In one scene, the bored children, left alone, get drunk. But their hilarity soon turns to terror as they accidentally set their homes afire. We see their parents returning home from backbreaking work with expressions of many emotions: horror, anguish, frustration, exhaustion, defeat. The owner's utterly selfish solution is for the children to go to work in the cane fields and so avoid trouble.
The film is shot in a sepia tone technique which Ms. Palcy created. Her purpose was to evoke a sense of the past and to counter the tendency to see Martinique 's lush landscape as a paradise, and so forget the agony of the people who labor on it.
M'Man Tine's arduous labor cutting cane for so many years has weakened her body, but not her kindness. More than anything, she wants Jose to be educated. She is portrayed with unforgettable firmness and sweetness, strength and gentleness by Darling Legitimus. Jose and M'Man Tine are so human: they both fight with and care for each other. In a great scene, as M'Man Tine hears that Jose will get only a partial scholarship, the way her face shows weariness, sorrow, and determination is breathtaking.
M'Man Tine and Jose have to live in an automobile crate while she does laundry to pay his tuition. The sincerity of Jose's gratitude, the way his face is lit and warm and mobile, shows the depths of true emotion. When he wins a full scholarship, he tells his grandmother that some day he will take care of her and she will never have to do laundry or cut cane again.
M'Man Tine returns to Sugar Cane Alley where she dies. As Jose and a little girl prepare her for burial, we are swept with sorrow and love. Every great emotion, I learned, is not just personal; it has the world in it. With dignity the girl holds a bowl of water as Jose bathes his grandmother's feet. Through closeups of young hands, a foot, the wooden bowl, the measured motion of water and washing, all filmed with simplicity and richness, we feel deep respect which, as Mr. Siegel explained, is aesthetic, true emotion.
Because Euzhan Palcy portrayed the emotions of Martinique's people with beauty and depth, they love her. Said Aime Cesaire, noted West Indian author and mayor:
An old man whose life was in this film said, “Now I can die happy.”