Stateless


(2019) Documentary (Hispaniola/PBS) Rosa Iris, Juan Teofilo Murat, Gladys Feliz. Directed by Michéle Stephenson

Here in the United States, we grapple with our own race relations. On the left, claims that institutional racism has kept Americans of African descent from achieving their own American dream, whereas from the right equally firm assertions that racism is individual, not institutional and that great strides have been made since the Jim Crow era.

In many ways, racism here has been a subtle presence over the past thirty years, but during the Trump administration, it became more overt. We have, in many demonstrable ways, regressed back in time. However, the racism here is nothing compared to what it is in the Dominican Republic.

In 2013, their Supreme Court handed down an astonishing decision that stripped citizenship from all Dominicans of Haitian descent going back to 1929. That left more than 200,000 people stateless – without a country, without rights. The Dominican Republic shares an island with Haiti; in the Dominican, Spanish is spoken whereas in Haiti the language is French. The Dominicans tend to be lighter-skinned; Haiti is largely populated by those of African descent. The Dominican is relatively prosperous whereas Haiti is impoverished, and what infrastructure had been there was largely reduced to rubble in the earthquake and hurricane that followed it.

The wealthy sugar cane plantations in the Dominican had long imported Haitian labor to do the brutal work in the cane fields, but in 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the army to execute all Haitians inside the Dominican border, and they responded by not only doing that but murdering Dominican citizens of Haitian descent, even Dominicans with no Haitian blood but darker-skinned. Tens of thousands were murdered.

This Canadian-made and financed documentary follows three people; lawyer and activist Rosa Iris, whose primary job is getting citizenship for those whose citizenship was unjustly taken away. She runs for office, hoping to reverse the nationalist trend that has enveloped the Dominican. One of her clients is her cousin, Juan Teofilo Murat, one of the 200,000 affected. He is prohibited from seeing his children and has been living in Haiti, hoping to get his legal status resolved. Finally, there’s Gladys Feliz, a grandmotherly sort who represents the nationalist movement. Hers is the most chilling sequence of all; she seems on the surface to be a lovely and rational person, but then she says things that are simply horrible and clearly racist. For her, Haitians are all about robbery, rape and murder (sound familiar?) and who are out to subvert the island paradise that is the Dominican Republic.

The stories are interwoven with a folk tale-like story of a woman named Moraime, who fled the 1937 massacre. The cinematography for the Moraime sequences are almost dream-like and hauntingly beautiful, as opposed to the stark pictures of the poverty of Haiti and of the Dominican Haitians.

There is a terrifying sequence in which Rosa Iris is driving Juan Teofilo from the Haitian border to Santo Domingo to submit paperwork. Their car is stopped regularly at military checkpoints. Any one of them could result in arrest. We watch mainly through hidden cameras, the tension in the faces of the occupants of the car palpable.

Much of the latter half of the film revolves around the campaign by Rosa Iris to be elected to the national assembly, hoping to bring her activism to the halls of power. Already a target for threats of violence due to her assistance of Haitian-descended Dominicans in getting their citizenship reinstated, now becomes a target for death threats. She is concerned for not only her safety but the safety of her beguiling young son. In all honesty, while her efforts to resolve the injustice politically are noble, we end up spending more time watching her campaign than dealing with the bureaucratic hurdles that face Dominicans of Haitian descent; the meeting that Juan Teofilo has with an apathetic clerk in the records office is one of the most compelling bits in the film. His melancholy face is as memorable as Rosa Iris’ courage and heroism is.

This is a marvelous and chilling film. The United States isn’t quite this bad yet, but we were definitely on the road that leads to what we see here, and we’re not off of it yet (I was thinking that while Gladys Feliz espouses her hateful invective that it was ironic that she would likely be the sort of person that Trump’s policies would have excluded from immigrating to America). The movie, which won best Canadian feature at the recent Hot Docs festival, is also playing Tribeca this weekend. For those who aren’t able to make it to that festival, it will be airing on the wonderful PBS documentary series P.O.V. on July 19th and should be available for streaming after that. This is a movie that those who are passionate about social justice should have on their short list.

REASONS TO SEE: Rosa Iris cuts a heroic figure. The story is compelling and all-too-tragically familiar.
REASONS TO AVOID: The electioneering distracts from the central issue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the election, Rosa Iris continued to receive death threats for her support of the Haitian community; she eventually requested and was granted asylum in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: PBS (effective July 19), Tribeca @ Home (through June 23)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen Penn
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
P.S. Please Burn This Letter

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Narco Soldiers


(2019) Crime (GravitasRafael Amaya, Carolina Guerra, Octavio Pizano, Ricardo Chavira, Ivo Canelas, Cody Kasch, Roger Cross, Carlos Naveo, Hector Anibal, Omar Patin, Axel Mansilla, Iban Marrero, Anika Lehmann. Directed by Felix Limardo

 

The world is often a strange place, particularly now. Movies reflect that, particularly now. How else do you explain Narco Soldiers? It is, in fact, a movie about how drug cartels can contribute to national pride.

Danny (Amaya) is a hired killer for a cartel run out of Puerto Rico by The Sarge (Cross). Now a free agent, he hooks up with Don Toribio (Chavira) to become a middle man in the Mexican and Colombian cartels. But Danny’s buddy Teo (Pizano), has a different idea; to create a cartel right there in the Dominican Republic. As his high-end girlfriend Marisela (Guerra) puts it, the Dominican has long been a place where other nations came to exploit with no benefit at all to the Dominicans. The cartels are just the latest in the long line.

As it turns out, Marisela is the brains behind the operation and she’s as ruthless as they come. Together, Teo, Marisela and Danny become a force to be reckoned with and build a cartel of their own. However, along the way they make enemies and you know what they say; the bigger you are, the harder you fall.

I like the Latin point of view here; most times, we get a more European look at the cartels, an American infiltrator or some such. Here, we see the bosses at the top. The problem is that they don’t really give them characters so much as roles; one is the muscle, one is the brains, one is the heart. We never get a sense of complete human beings behind the parts.

The script is also deeply predictable and even the action scenes don’t really add very much. That’s not to say that the action is done badly – it’s not – but there just isn’t anything that stands out. The plot is somewhat convoluted, but again, there’s a very “been there, done that” feeling to it. In fact, that could be the film’s epitaph; it’s okay, but nothing special. And it could have been.

REASONS TO SEE: Comes with a Latin point of view that is refreshing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very basic and workmanlike.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence and profanity, drug references, sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amaya is best known for his work in the Mexican TV show Lord of the Skies.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mothman Legacy

Sugar


Sugar

In baseball there is always fireworks.

(Sony Classics) Algenis Perez Soto, Rayniel Rufino, Andre Holland, Michael Gaston, Jamie Tirelli, Jose Rijo, Ann Whitney, Richard Bull, Ellary Porterfield. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck

Dreams are a very personal thing. We all have them – some sort of goal that we yearn to achieve, be it a career, a relationship or a life goal. Sometimes, our dreams turn out to be very different in reality than they are in our minds.

In the Dominican Republic, baseball is more than a sport; it’s a ticket out of the abject poverty that blankets much of the country. For Miguel “Sugar” Santos, a pitcher with raw talent, that ticket is about to be cashed. He attends the camp of the Kansas City Knights, a Major League Baseball team with a talent camp in the Dominican.

Sugar’s talent nets him a minor league contract and he reports to the Quad City Swing, a team located in the middle of Iowa. Sugar is sent to live with the Higgins family; motherly Helen (Whitney) and curmudgeonly Earl (Bull). This is farm country and it’s as alien from Sugar’s circumstances as you could possibly get.

The Higgins’ granddaughter Anne (Porterfield) takes a shine to Sugar, but she like her grandparents are Evangelical Christians and as much as she likes him, it’s his soul she’s more concerned with. Sugar also has friends on the ballclub, fellow Dominican Jorge (Rufino) and Brad (Holland), a whiz-bang prospect who already has grad school at Stanford lined up if baseball doesn’t work out for him.

Sugar has no such prospects; it’s either baseball or nothing. At first, he tears up the league but as the summer wears on, Sugar begins to fall prey to the physical toll of the game. As his frustration mounts, he begins to wonder if his major league dream is just the fantasy of a naïve young man or truly his destiny to achieve.

This sounds a lot like every other sports underdog movie you’ll ever see, but almost immediately you’ll begin to discover it’s not anything like that. For one thing, this isn’t about baseball; it’s about life. One of the coaches tells Sugar early on “life gives you many opportunities; baseball gives you just one” and he’s right about that. This is a move about opportunity and what you do with them.

This is the first major role for Soto and he makes the most of it. You get the impression that this might very well be the role he’s remembered for and if that’s the case it’s not a bad legacy to leave behind. Sugar is quiet and sweet-natured but he has a breaking point. He gets angry, frustrated and weak. He makes mistakes and he does things he knows he shouldn’t do, but like most of us, does them anyway.

I’m told that the nuts and bolts of the story are very accurate; camps like the one depicted here are commonplace in the Dominican and the portrayal of the minor league system is just as correct.

Again, this isn’t about baseball. It’s about making choices. It’s about making the most about opportunities. It’s about friendships and rivalries and romances and mentoring. It’s about life, and that’s a movie worth seeing always.

WHY RENT THIS: A realistic and moving look at the dreams and aspirations of a Dominican baseball player.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pace drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some foul language and a little sexuality. Nothing more gratuitous than you might find on the average HBO show.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Kansas City Knights aren’t a real major league baseball team (the Kansas City Royals are the name of the MLB team); the nickname is a nod to The Natural in which Roy Hobbs played for the New York Knights.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interesting featurette on baseball in the Dominican.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Losers