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In 1800s Guadeloupe, a slave named Sebastien was accused of poisoning cattle belonging to his master, Mr Vallentin. Locked in a cell as punishment, Sebastien was dead within three months. A record of the events leading to his demise, mostly provided by other slaves during his master’s subsequent trial, remains.

It is this record that director Sylvaine Dampierre takes, almost 200 years later, as material for her documentary Words of Negroes, literalising the link to history by getting workers at a sugar factory on the island of Marie-Galante, where Sebastien died, to read the testimonies given at the trial.

This framing sets up a subdued suspense: how soon will the workers realise on camera that this blood-riddled text they are reading may be their own story prefigured? Surely it won’t be long before they see how capitalism has sublimated many of the paradigms of slavery in a dubious faux-meritocracy. Indeed, until the realisation comes, the dramatic irony of watching the labourers recite those accounts is deeply uncomfortable. Though they are no longer unfree in the same way, the similarities are inescapable: both slaves and modern-day workers must spend their lives undertaking physically demanding tasks incommensurate to whatever financial or other rewards they receive. The men reading the testimonies are called ‘model workers’ for being able to make decisions without a production manager, but as one worker says, “if I really am a model worker, I should be paid accordingly.” Every worker, slave or free, gets exploited. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

When the men do realise that they are in a similar situation to the people whose words they are voicing, one man exclaims, “We were those slaves!”. But it is less anger that fuels his reaction than surprise, resignation, an understanding that this is how the world works. It is an expression of his powerlessness on several levels: the factory, his beloved island, the world. We see another man, a landowner who produces the sugar cane used in the factory, bitterly express his own resignation at how little money he makes from his farm. But the conclusion is the same: life as they know it will continue. The produce obtained from his entire sugar cane farm will net him 40 or 50 euros, and when it is time to work his farmland for the same sum next season, he will do what is required. “It’s always the little guys who suffer,” he says. “The poorest ones.”

Still, these men are in a better position than Sebastien. His cell was not much larger than a grave, and water pouring into the cell from above turned the ground to mud, on which Sebastien lay. There is an argument in the accounts given onscreen about whether his cell had holes so he could breathe, but it hardly matters.

Disturbingly, the slaves’ testimonies contain some praise for Vallentin for not doling out the ‘recommended’ number of lashes – compare the relatively ‘benign’ slavemaster in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013). The parts of Words of Negroes that focus on the lives of the modern-day labourers share kinship with Nishtha Jain’s The Golden Thread, a 2022 documentary about Indian factory workers. These issues are global: as in that film, the Guadeloupean workers are easily replaced, even if the factory itself may be on its last legs.

Though Words of Negroes intends, through its time-slip form, to bear brutal witness to exploitation across the ages, the conceit of having the workers read the records obscures what must have been a deeply wrenching episode for some of the testifiers. Each of the testimonies, including one by Sebastien’s wife, ends up seeming stoic, bloodless. The impassive subtlety is hard to take.

Nonetheless, viewers are invited to draw their own dark connections, with visual cues set by Dampierre and her cinematographer Renaud Personnaz. In one scene towards the end, a worker talks about the cell in which Sebastien died; shortly after, we see the packaged sugar product that is the source of jobs and the island’s wealth. A sweet product after the bitterest of tales? Perhaps. But it is the pain in the words that should abide. “Kill me… Shoot me, rather than let me die in a cell,” Sebastien begged Vallentin. The plea was never granted.

Words of Negroes is available to stream on True Story now.