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Film review: 'Pureza'—an unflinching look at the Negros sugar industry


There is a moment in the documentary “Pureza” when a sakada (migrant worker) is shown toiling in a sugarcane field while the audio is that of a pre-recorded interview. As the sakada labors on, his sweat visible under a rapidly rising sun, we learn that this man’s only wish over the past two years has been to earn enough to visit his home province and see his family.   
As many testimonials are presented denouncing the use of cheap labor over the introduction of costly machinery, there are just as many in defense of it.
This is no simple task, we are informed; the man makes less than half the government-mandated minimum wage during the few months of the year he is able to find work. By the time a subtitle informs us that this scene is taking place just past 7 a.m. on Christmas Day, the documentary has the audience’s full attention, and it is impossible to look away. 
 
Taking its name from a term referring to the purity of the crop in question, “Pureza” is a new documentary from award-winning filmmaker, Jay Abello. 
 
While there are no two ways around the fact that sugar is the lifeblood of Negros, the same cannot be said about the opinions toward it, with arguments on all sides for and against every aspect of the industry. Such is the reality presented in “Pureza,” and as much has been said, written and claimed about Negros sugar, it’s safe to say that you’ve never seen it presented in so straightforward a manner. As the scion of a prominent sugar-producing family himself, Abello described the experience of making the film as a cathartic, if oftentimes uncomfortable, experience.
 
“It wasn’t until I was 37 years old (and making this film) that anyone told me the real story of Negros and the sugar industry,” said Abellos, addressing the audience at “Pureza’”s premiere last May 31 at Rockwell Cinema, many of whom were members of the privileged families represented in the film. “All of a sudden, things (I had taken for granted) were not trivial anymore. I finally knew what it meant when people in Manila referred to me as an haciendero, and I realized I didn’t like it. I became critical about my pride for Negros. What was I proud of, really? What is the standard we hold ourselves up to? What has Negros become? This is why this (project) became very important to me. It’s a very hard movie to watch. It’s long and heavy, because history is long and heavy.”  
"Pureza" is above simply regurgitating, much less propagating, old stereotypes.
While the perception of sugarcane field workers as indentured servants toiling to fill the coffers of decadent hacienderos may be a popular one, “Pureza” is above simply regurgitating, much less propagating, old stereotypes. Over 100 interviews were conducted over a period of three years to form the backbone of the production. Everyone, from landowners and workers to government officials, academics and social workers, is represented, making for a long, sober look at an industry that many, like Abello, may have taken for granted. 
 
For historical context, “Pureza” presents the actions of past generations via reenactments that can only be described as vaudevillian in their execution. Broad overacting familiarizes the audience with the Spanish and, later on, American, influence on sugar trade in the province, serving as an ironic spoonful of sugar to the bitter taste of the history being presented.
 
Throughout the screening, it wasn’t unusual to hear stirrings of recognition and knowing chuckles whenever someone’s friend or family member appeared onscreen. Nor was it unusual to perceive moments of stunned silence during some of the film’s more unflinching sequences, such as when vintage photos of lavish parties and lifestyles are contrasted against the difficult lives of the workers whose labors paid for them.  
Somewhere along the way, the hacienderos lost their competitive edge, a mistake we are paying for dearly.
Even-handed
 
Given the multifaceted nature of the subject matter and Abello’s disclaimer that “Pureza” is his personal take on it, the fact that he and his team were able—for the most part—to maintain an even-handed approach to the material is not only commendable, it’s outright remarkable. No fingers are pointed, for as many testimonials are presented denouncing the use of cheap labor over the introduction of costly machinery, there are just as many in defense of it. 
 
Where Abello and his collaborators have chosen not to pull their punches is in reminding the viewer of the Philippines’ former position as one of the world’s foremost producers of sugar, compared to the essentially stagnant state in which it now finds itself. While a portion of the blame may be attributed to the volatile nature of sugar trading in general and the blatant corruption of local regulating agencies during the Marcos years, the real death blow to Philippine sugar has been complacency.   
At a time when PR reigns supreme and half-truths are regularly presented as fact, this is one documentary that has earned its tagline 'no sugar coating.'
The film makes the case that, labor issues aside, somewhere along the way, the hacienderos lost their competitive edge, a mistake we are paying for dearly. Around the world, cheaper sugar from countries like Thailand and Cuba are eating up what remains of the Filipino market share. This trend, the documentary informs us, will come to a head in 2015, when the ASEAN free trade agreement comes into effect. By then, those foreign sugars will be able to enter the Philippines tax free, rendering all arguments on responsibility, blame and legislation, laughably, pathetically, academic. 
 
“Pureza” declares on its poster that there’s “No Sugar Coating.” At a time when public relations (PR) reigns supreme and half-truths are regularly presented as fact, this is one documentary that’s earned its tagline, and it’s got the scars, past, present and future, to prove it. –KG, GMA News
 
For more information on “Pureza” and screening schedules, visit www.purezamovie.blogspot.com.  Photos courtesy of Bonfire Productions
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