Review: Jay Abello's PUREZA: THE STORY OF NEGROS SUGAR
Jay Abello's Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar astounds with its scope. In its attempt to answer the thesis question of what the real price of sugar is, the documentary explores and investigates the magnitude of what is ailing the local sugar industry, from the seeming ignorance and insensitivity that continue to plague governmental intrusion to the culture of entitlement that was cultivated by centuries worth of luxuries that the money crop has provided. It mostly succeeds in making a gloomy galaxy out of a spoonful of sugar one normally puts in his morning coffee to sweeten his day and condensing that galaxy into less than two hours of consistently interesting and sometimes entertaining conjectures, challenges, and fault-finding.
Abello's approach is academic. The dense narration, delivered with curious seriousness by Abello not without a suspicious air of unfeeling detachment, expresses the immensity of the research. There is always that feeling that the narration was constructed to contain as much information within the least amount of words, unfortunately making the entire documentary not a little bit rushed and cluttered. Abello does manage to organize everything by dividing his research into chapters, providing some sort of comfort in his overeager lecture. He also adds some playfulness into the complexity of his subject matter, throwing into his thesis more than a bit of familiar history which conveniently criss-crosses with the very specific events that shaped the Philippine sugar industry, depicted as a stylized mini-feature composed of delightful re-enactments that temporarily divert from the moroseness of the present condition.
Abello sprinkles some personal anecdotes, grounding his bookish research with actual experiences. Although the documentary is grounded mostly by research-based facts and opinions of experts who were invited to weigh in on the subject, its heart lies in the fact that the endeavor for the documentary's existence is drawn not from mere circumstance or curiosity but from the closeness of such material to the director's heart.
Abello, being a member of the Negros elite, those who were in the receiving end of most of the benefits of the successes of the industry, was able to churn out the most intriguing interviews from his subjects, most of whom are probably relatives, friends or business acquaintances. He frames his interviews peculiarly. A prominent sugar baroness would details how sugar has spoiled the populace, laughing to her heart's content while draped over an expensive but minimalist sofa. While an owner of a milling company discusses the future troubles of the already ailing industry, one can't help but notice the immensity of his estate that features prominently in the background. There's both sincerity and levity in Abello's concern for the sugar industry. He understands the root of the problem enough to ridicule it, to harvest jokes out of it, and to produce a few earned chuckles from it.
Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar avoids the pitfalls of being too localized and too inert to be of interest to the casual moviegoer by its earnestness, by the skillfulness in which Abello shapes his arguments, by the sporadic instances when the experiences of the Negros sugar industry evolves into a universal instigation of the caprices of government, the imperfection of economics, and the shallowness of humanity. It is hardly a perfect picture, but it does serve the purpose of education to the uninformed and re-education to the misinformed.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)