Film Review: Haitian-Dominican Doc ‘Stateless’

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In 2007, a United Nations delegation visited Santo Domingo; Dajabón, on the Dominican Republic’s border with Haiti; Santiago; and San Pedro de Macorís. In a report to the UN’s Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, they described a “profound and entrenched problem of racism and discrimination in Dominican society, generally affecting blacks and particularly such groups as black Dominicans of Haitian descent and Haitians.”

No shit, Sherlock.

They went on to urge the Dominican government to recognize “the reality of racism and discrimination and the expression of a strong political will at the highest level as well as the establishment of a programme of action to combat all forms of racism and discrimination in consultation with, and inclusive of, all groups within Dominican society.” Seven years later, the Dominican Constitutional Court revoked the citizenship of all Dominicans of Haitian descent retroactive to 1929, leaving over 200,000 people stateless. In other words, the stringently nationalist Dominican government pretty much told the UN to stick their report where the sun don’t shine.

Stateless (Apátrida), Haitian-Panamanian filmmaker Michèle Stephenson’s essential new documentary airing Monday, July 19 at 10 pm as part of POV on PBS and streaming on their website immediately after until August 18, not only looks at the devastating impact the court decision had on those Dominican families most affected by it and the activists who work on their behalf, but also at the country’s virulent, violent and sometimes deadly political environment that engendered it, where Facebook and Twitter postings actually lead to political assassinations. Stephenson follows two women from opposite sides of the country’s political spectrum: civil rights attorney Rosa Iris Diendomi Álvarez, herself of Haitian descent, whose work consists in helping the men and women impacted by the law navigate the many bureaucratic hurdles they face as they try to get their papers in order; and Gladys Feliz-Pimentel, a member of the Dominican Republic Nationalist Movement, a direct descendant of Pedro Pimentel, the country’s ninth president and a leader of the Dominican Restoration War against Spain that took place between 1863 and 1865.

We first meet Rosa Iris as she squares off against a female government official who claims that Rosa Iris’s client can barely speak Spanish when in fact he can speak it fluently. The fact that this bureaucrat happens to be black should come as no surprise given that most Dominicans avoid using the term black, preferring such terms as “moreno,” “trigueño” and even “blanco-oscuro” to describe their skin color. Later, during a TV appearance, when asked about a brutal assault against a colleague, Rosa Iris deplores the rise of hate speech in social media and the government’s inaction in stopping it. Rosa Iris becomes a target of hate speech herself when, later in the documentary, she decides to run for Congress: not only is her life threatened on social media but that of her only son as well.

We are introduced to Gladys in Dajabón, on the border with Haiti, as she documents the flow of people coming in and out of Haiti into her country and complaining about not being allowed into theirs by border security, even though she is told that only legitimately licensed merchants are allowed through that border entrance. Out of Gladys’s mouth, during this sequence and throughout the documentary, comes a veritable hit parade of Trumpian phrases: “Haitians here to commit murder, assaults, they chop people up because that’s the way they operate,” “The government must build a wall,” “The Dominican nation is one big house.”

Rosa Iris travels to Haiti for the first time in her life to visit her cousin Juan Teófilo Murat, who left the Dominican Republic for the town of Belladere to avoid being deported, leaving behind his two children. His problems started when he wanted to renew his passport: the age on his mother’s death certificate did not match other public records. Rosa Iris’s joy at setting foot on her ancestors’ land is tempered by Juan Teófilo’s justified anger towards the Dominican government.

Rosa Iris’s no-budget political campaign in the neighborhoods, her struggle against a system where votes are bought left and right—she keeps being asked by the people how much she is willing to pay to get their vote—and her attempts to help Juan Teófilo renew his passport and ID run on parallel tracks. As they are stopped at three different check points, Stephenson effectively uses hidden cameras to generate suspense around Juan Teófilo’s return to the Dominican Republic for a meeting at the Central Board of Elections. These cameras also capture the indifference and even disdain of the government official tasked with handling Juan Teófilo’s request, shrugging him off as he answers several text messages on his smartphone. Juan Teófilo’s frustration and his brief reunion with his children are as heartbreaking as the look in his children’s eyes when later on Rosa Iris asks them if they have a message for their father as she prepares to visit him again. 

Throughout the documentary, Stephenson weaves the story of Moraima, a child who tried to escape the 1937 massacre of over 20,000 Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent ordered by President Trujillo, to show how physical violence against blacks has been replaced by a more insidious, morally and spiritually draining kind of violence, one disguised as bureaucracy. Its images of black children coming out of a river or running, the colors digitally altered, may offer a contrast to Rosa Iris’s and Juan Teófilo’s more urgent, contemporary story, but they are also tied by a long history of anti-Haitianism and the Dominican Republic’s own complex history with race.

And what about Gladys? She and her friends—“Women make up 90 percent of the nationalist movement,” she claims—take Stephenson on several trips, one to an encampment and town they claim the government built for Haitians at the expense of Dominicans. But when the residents of the neighborhood tell them that the Dominican government brought them from Haiti to work the sugar cane fields and eventually left them behind, she dismisses their claims since their facts don’t fit with her worldview and prejudices. Like many other white (or passing for white) supremacists, it’s no use to confront them with the facts—their minds are already made up.

The broadcast of Stateless arrives at an opportune moment, as U.S. Latinos and Latin Americans begin to address racism and colorism in our history, our culture and society. Stephenson shows its ugly face and the human toll it takes. She presents the Dominican Republic not only as a case study of the ravages nationalism and fear-mongering are causing across the world. It shows how colorism and racism are deeply ingrained in our culture and how challenging it is to eradicate them.

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Alejandro has been active in Latino media since 1988 when he and a group of 12 independent producers launched Orgullo Latino, a weekly newsmagazine series in the Chicago Access Network. Alejandro joined ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly, as a freelance reporter in 1993, where he wrote about entertainment and culture with the occasional foray into politics. He was also a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo, Arts & Entertainment and Friday sections. Part of the transition team that replaced ¡Exito! with Hoy, and in 2004 he became Senior Editor for all three editions of Hoy (New York, Chicago and LA). He currently is a freelance writer, editor and media relations specialist in Chicago.

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