Directed By: Fernando Gonzalez Molina
Written By: Sergio G. Sanchez
Based on: Palmeras en la nieve by Luz Gabas
Mario Casas – Killian
Adriana Ugarte – Clarence
Berta Vazquez – Bisila
Macarena Garcia – Julia
Alain Hernandez – Jacobo
Djedje Apali – Iniko
Laia Costa – Daniela
Genre: Romance; Drama; Violence
Palm Trees in the Snow is a 2015 Spanish feature film. With a backdrop of Equatorial Guinea during colonial times and the present, it follows a young woman’s search for her family’s story when they lived in Bioko, while working for the Spanish colonial enterprise. Going back and forth in time, it depicts Clarence’s (Adriana Ugarte) journey and the story of Killian (Mario Casas) and Bisila (Berta Vazquez).
Clarence is at the family estate for her father Jacobo’s funeral. With her uncle Killian suffering from dementia and her cousin Daniela (Laia Costa) taking care of him, it is left to her to sort through the family papers since they are considering selling off the family land.
In the course of looking through the papers, Clarence comes across a part of a letter that mentions a woman and child in Bioko who were receiving regular payments from her uncle. Considering the recent loss, Clarence decides to travel to Bioko to look for the people mentioned in the letter, and if they be relatives to bring them back.
The story then switches to the past, when Killian first joined his father Anton and his brother Jacobo (Alain Hernandez) at the colonial company. Naïve and idealistic, he is fascinated by everything around him but also quickly finds himself out of his depth.
Since the colonial machinery functions on violence and power, his soft attitude would be entirely useless and some in the company feel he needs to be remoulded. In fact, one of the overseers, Gregorio places a snake in Killian’s room and makes it so that one of the workers is suspected. The intention is to goad Killian into becoming a proper ‘Massa’ (master) – one who is unafraid of whipping the slaves when required. Killian does whip the slave but on realising what actually happened, he punches Gregorio. But the deed is done, and like it or not Killian gave into the idea that slaves can be whipped as punishment.
Most colonial narratives, in keeping with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, make it seem like it is the colony’s fault that the white man becomes cruel and rapacious. However, here it is clear that it is the white man’s fear that he would be unable to maintain power unless he exercises it violently. The film, thus, does not shy away from displaying human brutality.
Killian and Bisila’s relationship is beautifully portrayed. It is obvious that they are besotted with each other and even if race comes to play in every other matter of their lives, it doesn’t colour their relationship. However, one has to wonder at her portrayal in the narrative, does it present something new about a character of colour or does it follow the general pattern? In fact, many characters of colour are reduced to physical roles and not roles of articulation.
The story also discusses the changing political landscape of Equatorial Guinea. In Killian and Bisila’s narrative there is the fight for independence from the colonial regime. Their move towards autonomy in many ways means violence against the colonial power structures. When Clarence goes to Bioko, it looks at a postcolonial space that rejects and is rather suspicious of the entry of the foreigner.
The film is realistic in its portrayal of power relations, in that the white man has authority over the plantation workers but is in many ways subjected to the rules of the colonial enterprise. Within the white system, he or she may actually access very little power. On the other hand, the workers may have positions of power in their traditional systems and yet be subservient to the white man. In this, there is an interesting character Simon, who is Killian’s houseboy and the future head of his village. When Clarence meets him, he refuses to speak the ‘colonial tongue’ because that’s an identity he has rejected. All in all, Palm Trees in the Snow much like the title looks at the dichotomies created in peoples’ lives through the brutality of colonialism.