The Americas 61.2 (2004) 346-347
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We are frequently told, these days, that the world is growing smaller, that globalization is creating an international culture, especially youth culture, and that despite challenges by atavistic ethnic loyalties, cultural homogenization is the wave of the future. Jorge Wolney Attala's In Cane for Life provides an alternative narrative of globalization. The workers and consumers shown here are tied together by a single product—sugar—but the social, cultural and economic distance between these groups is so vast that they might as well inhabit different universes.
In Cane for Life ingeniously intersperses the voices of some of the 800,000 Brazilians who survive by cutting sugarcane with discussions about their lives, statistics, historical footage, and on-the-street interviews with people who blithely consume sugar without a clue as to what goes into its production. The interviewers' [End Page 346] presence in the film is understated, almost invisible, but a strong message emerges from the collage, a message imbued with both hope and hopelessness. Work in cane is backbreaking, dangerous, and offers little potential for any kind of social mobility. Workers enter the cane fields well before they hit adolescence, and work there for decades. With a 20% unemployment rate in Brazil's cities, and meager wages for the few jobs available to the uneducated and unskilled, most of the workers interviewed were at once grateful to have the job, and fatalistic about the possibility of alternatives. Although most of the workers consider the pay to be high, they also acknowledge that it is never enough to cover the minimal living expenses.
The violence of everyday life in the cane fields is evident throughout the film. In a particularly heart wrenching series of recurring scenes, viewers come to know a couple who matter-of-factly describe their violent fights, discussing whether it would be better to lose the five-month fetus that the woman is carrying, and finally describe the loss of the baby when several doctors declined to attend to her after she went to the hospital with cramping and bleeding. The nurse reprimanded her for flushing the dead fetus down the toilet.
The last segment of the film, entitled "The Machine," explains that after hundreds of years of cutting by hand, Brazil's sugar industry is being mechanized. Environmental legislation has mandated that the entire harvest be mechanized by 2015. While some viewers may find little to mourn in the loss of a social structure and culture characterized by poverty and violence, it is clear that no provisions have been made for the hundreds of thousands of workers who will be displaced into a society and economy that have already excluded them. And, the narrator reminds viewers, even under the worst of conditions, cane cutters have scraped together a culture that will be irrevocably lost. The film has insisted on privileging the workers' voices and implicitly argues for their insistent humanity, despite the conditions that would seem to suffocate every expression of it.
At 69 minutes this documentary may be a bit long for classroom use. But it raises profound questions that could structure a whole semester's discussions about globalization, poverty, structural violence, culture, social structures, and the nature of the world we live in today and are creating for tomorrow.