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One People is one of the more eye-opening movies I’ve encountered this year. On a basic level, it’s an informative document of Suriname in the 1970s, presenting national attitudes about feminism and class relations. It’s also a compelling portrait of Suriname’s Indian immigrant community, showing how traditional practices took root in a foreign culture and even played a role in shaping it. Regardless of its documentary value, One People succeeds as what Quentin Tarantino has termed a “hang out movie.” De la Parra savors the interactions between his feisty and garrulous characters, generally enjoying their conversations for their own sake. And given the charged political climate—Suriname became an independent state shortly before the movie started filming—they have plenty to talk about. The soundtrack is a lot of fun too, featuring some groove-heavy Indian and South American pop of the period.
At the heart of the film is the issue of what it means to live between cultures, a subject that may be more prescient today than it was in 1976. The hero Roy is a Surinamese native who returns home after five years of studying economics in the Netherlands. He realizes how little he understands his own culture: upward mobility has made him lose track of his roots. De la Parra depicts his rediscovery of Suriname as an exuberant rite of passage, rich in flora, music, and fashion. (The friend with whom I saw it on Sunday said she wanted to try on every piece of clothing in the movie.) Surinamese life has an aphrodisiacal effect on Roy, and it’s only a matter of time before he falls in love.
His lover, Rubia, is no less complex a character. An Indian woman supporting herself as a nurse, she too stands between traditional and modern notions of self. She’s an emblem of third-world feminism—a subject rarely depicted in narrative movies—and de la Parra agreeably presents her self-determination as heroic. It’s never quite explained why she’d fall for a peacock like Roy (who has a girlfriend back in the Netherlands, no less), but the movie doesn’t gloss over this apparent contradiction either. The people of One People are believably impulsive, and their contradictory behavior only makes you want to learn more about them.