By Yun-hua Chen.

A fable and a metaphor about coexistence in isolation at the time of slavery and colonialization.”

A fable and a metaphor, The Survivors is a tale about coexistence in isolation at the time of slavery and colonialization. Set in the mid-19th century, survivors from a wrecked slave ship fend for their livelihood on the beach of a deserted island.

Premiered at IndieLisboa, The Survivors is co-produced in Portugal and Brazil and is based on the original story by director José Barahona. It is a setup that straddles two continents, the former colonizers and colonized, and the art forms of textual and audio-visual. This intentional interface is apparent from the onset, as the film seeks to bring out the most real in the visibly fictionalized setting. Through the microcosm of a corner on a deserted island, The Survivors zeros in on the macrocosm of the aftermath of colonialism and slavery, shedding light on the historical fact that almost six million Africans were taken from Africa to Brazil before slavery was officially abolished. Structurally it is built on the togetherness of individuals that represent their respective way of participation in this part of history, almost like a sociological experiment: a slave-owning and farm-running lady, her fiery and secretly pregnant daughter, her enslaved butler, a moralizing priest with a clandestine wife and children, a seeming selfish brute who turns out having somewhat liberal ideas, and a seemingly anti-slavery white wealthy man who marks the inception of capitalist slavery. The symbolism they carry is very much in the audience’s face: pro or against slavery, pro or against inter-racial sexual relationships, colonialism vs. postcolonialism, religious power vs. secular force, individualism vs. collectivism, degrees and circumstances of egocentrism.

Sobreviventes (2024) - IMDb

Before the group starts venturing out of their beach in the second half of the film, it is almost completely theatrical. The beach being the stage, Hugo Azevedo’s black-and-white cinematography is crisp, brisk and contrasting, though somewhat too ungrainy and clear for the texture of its time. Anabela Moreira, who plays the severe mother in Viver Mal (2023) and Mal Viver (2023), once again has a distorted relationship with her daughter, this time as the slave-owning mother whose snobbism pushes her daughter to a slave and bonds them at the same time.

Colonialism is a subject matter that director José Barahona is continuously engaged with. His previous work, Nheengatu (2020), is a documentary that goes deep into Amazon to unravel the mixed language Nheengatu used by the indigenous population. In The Survivors, his interest in the subject matter blends into overabundant symbolism about the fragility of hierarchical systems à la Triangle of Sadness. This film is, in a way, a 19th-century rendering of the deserted island situation, with the added dimension of slavery and colonialism of that era. In the same vein as The Triangle of Sadness, the concept of “survivors” on an island lays bare of pretense and reveals human nature as it is, as well as the mentality behind slavery – the privileged wants to remain privileged, the one that finds the only barrel of drinking water is unwilling to share it. This moral message might sometimes lack subtlety and its form can leave one desire more originality, but the director’s sense of urgency in telling this story is undeniably genuine and heartfelt.

In this untrodden territory of an isolated island, the appearance of João Salvador, the slave and butler, marks the first reversal of power. In the new world of the post-shipwreck beach, the ability to survive in the wilderness becomes the currency most sought for. The initial group’s subsequent encounter with the community of black survivors who become the domineering race is the second reversal; the former slaves readily take up the masters’ position, and the white become the slaves to their own slaves – a well-deserved absurdity that triggers laughter of the contemporary audience. While history repeats itself incessantly and hypocrisy reveals itself in many faces, freedom and slavery become two ends of the dichotomy that is easily flappable. The former slaves are all too ready to jump into the role of slave-owners, given the right opportunity, whereas those former slaves set free are forced to work for pennies and turn out to be enslaved by market economy. The inherent power struggle, illustrated in this metaphor and beyond, encompasses race and class, yet extends beyond these categories. After a chess game between João Salvador and the slave-freeing farm-owner Fradique Mendes, João asks, “Why does the white side always win?” They then swap the colors of their pawns. Yet, this reversal has little impact on the underlying dynamics; race, class, physical and intellectual power, access to resources and financial profits are too intricately intertwined to be easily reversed. Ultimately, reversal merely entails placing different individuals in specific positions, while the inherent logic remains unchanged.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and she has contributed to the edited volume Greek Film Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

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