Karlovy Vary Competitor ‘Banzo’ Brings the Deadly Heartbreak of Colonialism to the Screen

Margarida Cardoso’s “Banzo,” which plays in the main competition section of Karlovy Vary Film Festival this week, is a deeply evocative consideration of the literal heartbreak of colonialism in Africa. It was filmed on location on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, where ruins remain today of the cocoa plantations her characters populate.

Profits for the Portuguese plantation owners would be extraordinary and, they tell themselves, they are not slaveowners but employ African workers who chose to labor for them. That delusion is laid bare quickly as workers begin to collapse from a mysterious ailment in the fields while others hang themselves or begin to eat dirt rather than carry on with their labors.

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This fatal form of longing for the homes and families they’ve been ripped from has a name among the workers, it turns out, even as it mystifies the doctor brought in to right the situation: Banzo.

Cardoso, also a documentarian who has explored issues of race and colonialism in her past work, including “Two Dragons” (1996), “Yvone Kane” (2014) and “Sita – The Life and Times of Sita Valles” (2022), put in years of research into conditions and cultures on plantations like the one in “Banzo.”

The brutal force feeding of laborers as well as elaborate metal braces locked onto their heads to prevent them from eating soil are real and based on Cardoso’s studies.

“I mainly researched life in the plantations systems and the ambiguous role of medicine and the process of healing the persons condemned to slave labor,” Cardoso says.

“I read many reports from plantation doctors. Patients were valuable commodities that had to be ‘repaired’ to fulfil their functions. ‘Banzo’ existed as what was called ‘the nostalgia of the enslaved.’”

Another authentic element onscreen is the sweat and exhaustion of her cast, as they film scenes in the heavy Victorian clothing of the period on the sites of former cocoa production enterprises.

“I already knew the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe,” Cardoso says, “and the ruins of the countless plantations that existed there – and are still inhabited today – create a strange emotional portal to a very violent past. Filming there was a Herzogian undertaking. I believe that film locations are not simple sets but spaces where actors and crew can experience something in their bodies and souls, and I hope that experience will be reflected somehow in the result of the film.”

The director’s interest in Banzo as the central theme of a film grew out of her considerations of what might actually disrupt the vastly profitable European race for African riches of the era.

“The discomfort and strangeness felt by colonizers that enslaved people could have agency over their lives,” Cardoso explains. “This voluntary desire to die caused a huge disruption in the exploitative production system, and brought about an unacceptable notion at that time: That Black people were after all human.”

Cardoso felt “Banzo” could also offer the chance to look more deeply at issues she’s focused on throughout her filmmaking career.

She describes the film’s subject this way: “Perhaps having gone further back in time, trying to reflect on one of the most horrific moments in colonial history, the scramble for Africa, where Europe’s technological and scientific strengths sustained a civilizational arrogance that gave rise to a broad and inhuman massacre of African people and cultures.”

The character of Dr. Alfonso Paiva, the deeply conflicted young expert brought in to restore order, personifies the impossible dilemmas of that system, Cardoso says.

“This moral ambivalence exists in almost all the characters of the film who live and work in the system and on the side of power. Even the photographer Alphonse. I avoided showing Paiva as a white savior. I think the only character who has the characteristics of a white savior is Luisa, the administrator’s wife – but in the film, she is also shown in an ambiguous approach.”

“Banzo” achieves much of its oppressive, timeless atmosphere through remarkable cinematography by Leandro Ferrão and thoroughly detailed production design.

“I did huge image research since I worked on a hybrid film about the cocoa plantation systems,” Cardoso recounts. “Then, the secret to low-budget film is a lot of hard work and surrounding myself with very good, committed and super creative professionals.”

Her background in documentary was also useful, she says, “in finding ideas, researching and immersing myself for a long time in the places where I want to film. After writing the script, it becomes my compass. I don’t rehearse a lot, but I try to look at my compass if I’m lost.”

At the same time, Cardoso remains open to new discoveries and accidents while filming. “The process of creating a film has so many factors that are naturally uncontrollable, bringing endless ‘life’ to the film, and I am open to all of them – voluntarily or involuntarily.”

The director is also determined to preserve the truth about her subject, unlike the plantation managers of the time, who hoped their troubles and sins might be cleansed with time somehow, as one character puts it in a gloomy scene set during his evening walks: “The sea washes everything away from the coast.”

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