Often times, when diaspora bring up discussions of slavery and/or colonialism, we are told to leave whatever grievances which we may have “in the past”. Despite the fact that the nations of Africa, South America, and the Caribbean have and continue to support the economies of Europe and the United States, voicing this truth is seen as blasphemous. But some people cannot just “let well enough be”. But the actions of the past inform the present, and the present informs the future. When Clarence (Adriana Ugarte) goes through his old letters and realizes that her uncle, Killian (Celso Bugallo) has been secretly sending money to a secret family on the island of Fernando Po (Bioko) in Spanish Guinea for years, she leaves Spain to uncover the truth.
Killian (Mario Casas) and his best friend, Manuel (Daniel Grao) left Spain in 1954 for Fernando Po, the island paradise where Killian’s father and brother Jacobo (Alain Hernandez) were currently living, and where he was born. Killian will be working with his father, overseeing the cocoa fields, while Manuel studies the herbs and plant life. From their very first interaction with the other Spaniards, as well as their interactions with the African workers on the island, you know exactly what sort of movie this is going to be.
The Spanish men are arrogant, boastful, proudly racist, and regularly exploit both their workers, as well as the African women on the island, whom they routinely either rape or financially exploit in sexual transactions. The Spanish women spend half their time ignoring the affairs of their men and the other half complaining about what the African women who are “taking their men” have to do to survive. Rather than try to alleviate the burden of these women, they’d rather blame them and exonerate the men fetishizing them.
And then you have “good guys” like Killian, who is saddened by the fact that the people who work for him, whom he wouldn’t even think to invite into his home, or introduce to his family, view him as a foreigner and won’t accept him as one of them (for reference, see: White South African and White Jamaican settler tears). Killian wants to be down, but he’s not ready to lift a finger to fix that system which oppresses them for his benefit. Why, oh why can’t he be superior and equal at the same time? Poor, confused little colonizer. The cocoa workers aren’t called slaves, but they are that in everything but name. The overseers are even called “Massa”, the workers are verbally and physically abused, and the Spaniards live in large plantation homes on the island while those same workers often struggle to even eat.
In the present, when Clarence gets to Bioko, she quickly follows the family tradition of fetishizing Black bodies and her search for the truth becomes almost secondary to her island fling with a local. She hears his story and is very much aware of the violent racism still running rampant on the grounds, but his struggles are secondary to her curiosity, and her guide is quickly dismissed when he tries to prevent her from angering the locals, and she manages to White privilege her foot right into her mouth.
In the past, although he has a local escort who he goes with, Killian becomes infatuated with Bisila (Berta Vazquez) and the two have a passionate affair punctuated with hushed voices, secret rendezvous, and lies. He fancies himself in love, and surprisingly for both Berta and the audience, Killian steps up, committing to her as much as her people’s traditions will allow. But because he’s first spineless, and then a victim to the rules and regulations created by his own people, love cannot conquer all, and he has to leave Berta and their child behind and return to Spain. And what does he do to enact change and reunite with his family he’s left behind when he’s back home? Absolutely nothing.
Killian keeps them a secret and goes on with his life, convinced that sending them money is good enough. Because no colonizer has ever loved a person of colour more than their own privilege. Meanwhile, the Africans who would challenge the Spaniards’ claim to their home are seen as “militants” and “criminals” standing in the way of progress (read: the European obsession with wealth-hoarding). As we navigate Killian’s past through Clarence’s bumbling present, we see just how little has changed at all. The fact that the fetishizing, exploitation, and eventual dismissal of Black bodies, however “well-meaning” would be written and directed by Spaniards and packaged as a romance is nauseating.
Based on the novel by Luz Gabas, Palm Trees in the Snow is a film that echoes so many stories of the African diaspora throughout the world: adjusting to invaders in our homelands, procuring the “love” of men who will never love anyone more than their own power and social standing in the status quo, and watching lands once lush and beautiful become riddled with poverty and overflowing with pain as Western capitalism commodities every single resource, including the people. This isn’t romantic for anyone who doesn’t suffer from Stockholm syndrome. That said, the accurate portrayal of the violent power dynamics that exist in even “loving” relationships with someone whose humanity is validated as a consequence of your own being denied, the excellent cinematography and dialogue, and the beautiful cast make this film worth watching; not as a romance, but as a history lesson.
I give this one 4.25 stars.