With razor-sharp irony, Dutch documakers Sander Snoep and Sarah Vos limn a damning portrait of the legacy of colonialism in “Curacao.” The slyly acerbic pic juxtaposes letters from 18th- and 19th-century magistrates and ship captains, matter-of-factly enumerating everyday horrors of the slave trade, with scenes of contemporary Hollanders wining and dining in gated communities; meanwhile, the faces of marginalized blacks silently confront the camera. This well-crafted study in cultural cluelessness should succeed on the fest circuit, but the absence of a hook could hinder wider play.
Curacao boasts no truly indigenous population, its natives having been killed off by Spanish explorers in search of gold and silver. Instead, the Caribbean island is populated by descendants of African slaves and of Dutch slave owners. The Dutch refuse to acknowledge this history: One man, puzzling out his black employees’ psychology, ventures the theory that “something is bothering them from the past.”
Obscure but fascinating archival materials trace a de facto colonialism that effectively defuses all threats of change. A 1921 letter from a Shell Oil director proudly proclaims that by cutting black wages, he increased Dutch salaries by 20%. A 1950s industrial film features a black man showering as narration extols the civilizing gifts of Curacao’s Dutch presence. Coverage of a violently suppressed strike at Shell in 1969 shows company and government officials answering workers’ demands with armed troops and barely disguised contempt. In present-day Curacao, the filmmakers frame silent black waitresses or bartenders servicing country clubs and golf courses, where racist remarks pervade the idle chitchat of the privileged.
The deep divide between white and black, rich and poor, saturates every frame, but nowhere does it play out as absurdly as in a Dutch supermarket’s attempts to motivate black employees. In mandatory courses for workers, management seeks to bridge cultural differences. It quickly becomes apparent, though, that accommodation is a one-way street, any understanding of Antillean values and customs only relevant as a means of steering workers toward adoption of Dutch cultural norms.
One especially eloquent black woman speaks of the mindset created by centuries of slavery and an education system that teaches subservience to supposedly superior Dutch standards; management responds that this inability to “get over it” is what prevents her people from “moving forward.” It never occurs to the bosses that their employees, who have no economic stake in a Dutch supermarket chain, where everything is imported and no blacks ever shop, might lack emotional investment in the company’s prosperity.
The racist attitudes on display are utterly familiar, though the openness with which they are expressed seems unusual for 2010. Filmmakers Snoep and Vos have skillfully painted Curacao as a colonialist wet dream, a bubble-like transplanted Dutch community set against a crystalline blue sea and sky that sees itself as untouched by racial and class conflicts.