Two New Documentaries Give Caribbean Stories the Depth They Deserve

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It’s night time in Puerto Rico. A dembow beat, the rhythmic foundation of reggaeton, the throbbing, slicing in thick air. A man glows with sweat, washing the droplets off his shoulders as an amber light rubs gently against his dance partner. The crowd cries out as a beloved reggaeton anthem resounds in the distance.

A voice spoke in the island’s familiar accent: “I don’t want to spend my whole life fighting.”

This scene is coming towards the end Cecilia Aldarondo’s documentary “Landfall”. It is a moment of everyday pleasure, but it also struggles with the spiritual weight of political struggle. Still captures what it means to reach agreement Hurricane Maria and the 2019 uprising against government corruption. It is an image of warmth and friendliness, but one that refuses to set aside the difficult emotions that have accompanied the past few years of Puerto Ricans.

This approach, “Landfall” and “Stateless,” Two new movies about Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic PBS’s POV show, from many documentaries produced for audiences in the United States. Caribbean narratives are rarely given this kind of complexity on screen. In the West, the Antilles are seen as a place of distress and disorder, victimhood and depravity. In this reductive vision, Puerto Ricans are made helpless victims of Hurricane Maria, while Dominicans and Haitians are locked enemies in a never-ending historical war.

These views turn complex human realities into primitive stereotypes, linking the people of these islands to their colonial and racial traumas. But “Landfall” and “Stateless” challenge these notions. Films lean on ambiguity and ambiguity, resisting a dual vision of sheer disgust or simple triumph. “Landfall” is prismatic with no linear structure; It has multiple characters, creating an impressionistic combination of a community that makes sense of political instability and natural disaster. “Stateless” has three main characters, but defies the demand for a neat story about the triumph of the human spirit.

Both films exist in a documentary landscape that tends towards hope. Many of these films, especially those about non-Westerns and people of color for American audiences, follow a common thread: an underdog with a harsh past confronts a social problem and overcomes adversity with sheer willpower. think “White Helmets” Oscar-winning short film about workers rescuing volunteers in the Syrian civil war. Such films tend to turn layered realities into digestible encounters and channel difficult social problems into easy solutions.

To bust that formula, “Landfall” brings together vignettes from all over Puerto Rico. In the town of Bartolo, locals come together and transform a school into a communal living space, where food and household items are distributed among residents without help from the government or charities. Cryptocurrency entrepreneurs from the continental US come to Mayagüez in search of profit, given the status of the region. tax haven.

Puerto Ricans recalled their fears over food and gas shortages after standing in line for hours. It’s bitter, but there’s also the challenge: the crowds that fill the streets of old San Juan shout, “Fight, yes! Surrender, no!” At the height of the 2019 uprising against political corruption and government negligence, he demanded the resignation of then-governor Ricardo Rosselló. One woman described the pressure to get over the suffering caused by the hurricane as soon as possible: “We are trying to erase the bad things, put them aside. But I think we need to reconsider them,” he said. “We cannot forget that we are poor.” There are also moments of joy: friends playing dominoes on the beach “¡Pa’l carajo María!” squares he shouted. (“Screw María!”), as they remember a neighbor without electricity.

“Landfall” does not linger in despair or the ability to endure. Towards the end, following the governor’s resignation, crowds gather in the streets to celebrate, encouraged by days of protests. A series of jagged voices from Puerto Ricans echo over images of enthusiastic demonstrators: “I’m happy with this victory,” he said. “I’m not ready to celebrate yet,” said another. “I don’t know if we are at the beginning or in the middle of the road,” says a third. It is this multiplicity that allows “Landfall” to be perfect. Without providing a simple account of the recovery after Maria, it addresses both the raw grief and the sense of relief that many carry with them.

“Stateless” directed by Michèle Stephenson, zeros in three characters: a lawyer, Rosa Iris Diendomi Álvarez; his stateless cousin, Juan Teofilo Murat; and a Dominican ultranationalist, Gladys Feliz Pimentel. The movie follows them after an event. landmark 2013 court decision Deprived of citizenship of Dominicans of Haitian descent born after June 1929. The decision deprived thousands of state benefits and left many stateless, forcing many to return to Haiti, where they had no documents.

Diendomi Álvarez provides legal aid to neighbors, helping them register with the government so they can access social services. Murat talks about how he had to return to Haiti and how he abandoned his two children. Feliz Pimentel articulates anti-immigrant sentiments familiar to US audiences by describing Haitians as rapists and criminals and demanding the construction of a border wall.

It’s hard to watch. Feliz Pimentel is indifferent to her mundane, sometimes extremist views, and the contradictions are immediately apparent: “Haitians have always lived in fraternity with the Dominicans” and says they “deserve a better opportunity”—an opportunity that only the Dominican Republic lacks. Murat’s journey is as heartbreaking as it is infuriating; in a single teardrop frame, she describes how hard it was to be separated from her children, missing the formative moments of their youth. Diendomi Álvarez is daring throughout: she tries to help her cousin with her status, a hidden camera that tracks their journey into the government’s labyrinthine bureaucracy. He’s even launching a self-funded congressional campaign.

The movie is largely observational and perceptual, but there are also moments of anger. An interview at the Central Election Board, the institution responsible for Dominican civil registration, reveals the neglect embedded in the political system and makes little reference to Murat. But there’s also joy: the excitement Diendomi Álvarez felt on her father’s first visit to his hometown of Haiti, and the poignant battle he waged while campaigning to preach about grassroots change. Throughout the film, it tries to relate the anti-Haitian problem to the history of colonialism and dictatorship on the island, avoiding stereotypes.

The fate of Diendomi Álvarez and Murat at the end of “Stateless” remains uncertain. There is no endurance fantasy or proposition that an individual’s success will remove the injustices of the entire system. There are moments of improvement, but also ample attention is paid to the difficulties that still linger for many after denationalization.

Showcasing people from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic as nuanced figures, these films dream of more than just a favorable future or a devastating gift for the Caribbean. They refuse to pathologize and reduce entire groups of people. To quote an indelible phrase from the Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant, they “consent not to be a single entity”.

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