On 23 September, 2013, an extraordinary event occurred in the Dominican Republic. In a ruling viewed throughout the Caribbean and beyond as a human-rights catastrophe, the country’s constitutional court voted to denationalise all people of Haitian descent born in the DR after 1929. Everyone born after that year without at least one parent of Dominican blood — most of the entire Haitian-Dominican population of a million people — was retroactively rendered stateless.
Last September, too, another event of significance to the Dominican Republic took place, one not unrelated to the court’s decision. Cristo Rey, the second feature film written and directed by rising DR filmmaker Leticia Tonos, had its world premiere at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival.
Cristo Rey follows the fortunes of two young people in love: Janvier, who is of mixed Haitian and Dominican blood, and Jocelyn, a Dominicana. Janvier and Jocelyn live in the barrio of Cristo Rey (Christ the Redeemer), where casual discrimination and police harassment — as is the case throughout the DR — are commonplace for the Haitian and Haitian-descended population, and violence is not unknown.
Inspired by Romeo and Juliet, the ur-text for tales of ill-fated lovers everywhere, and channeling the gritty urban mood and style of cinematic forebears like the Brazilian film City of God and the Jamaican classic The Harder They Come, Tonos’s film has the urgent feel of a story ripped from the daily headlines. Cristo Rey is politically minded social-realist filmmaking at its most unapologetically provocative — albeit with an appealingly emotional narrative at its hot, pulsing heart.
Telling tough stories is not something Tonos is unaccustomed to. At the London Film School, where in 2001 she completed her filmmaking studies, Tonos decided to make an adaptation of “Ysrael”, a short story by her compatriot (and patron saint of American postgraduate writing courses) Junot Díaz, as her thesis film. The account of a boy who wears a mask because his face was eaten by a pig, “Ysrael” is, to say the least, an unsettling story.
But Tonos wasn’t interested in bringing Díaz’s story to the screen for any prurient shock value it might have. “I chose ‘Ysrael’ because the idea of having this deformed kid think of himself as a superhero was just fascinating for me,” she tells me in an email from her home in Santo Domingo, in English that elegantly belies her declaration of a lack of fluency in her second language. “I felt really attracted to the character’s contradictions.”
Getting Diaz’s go-ahead to shoot the film turned out not to be the labour she feared it would. “I managed to get Junot’s number in New York through a friend,” she says. “I called him from my flat in London. He was extremely surprised, but I was even more surprised when he said yes, he loved the idea.” Dealing with Díaz’s publisher was not as easy. In the end, however, permission was granted, and the finished film was selected to represent the London Film School at several film festivals.
On her return to the Dominican Republic, saddled with a graduate’s debt, Tonos threw herself into film and television production work. It would be nearly a decade before she was able to complete her own first feature, La hija natural (Love Child).
Unlike the disturbing Ysrael before it, and the urban reality of Cristo Rey afterwards, La hija natural is a poignant tale set in the campo, the countryside, with supernatural aspects that recall Gabriel García Márquez and the magical realist school of Latin American writers who followed him.
“When talking about the Dominican countryside, it is almost impossible not to include these elements,” says Tonos, who was born and raised in Santo Domingo, the country’s capital. “La hija natural meant going to our roots as Dominicans, going deep into many of our beliefs. The deeper you go, the more surreal it gets.”
La hija natural is the story of a young woman who, on the death of her mother, decides to seek out the father she has never known. Making the film was also an act of comprehending for Tonos. “One of the main things I learned in film school is that you have to write about the things you know,” she says. “La hija natural is a deeply personal reflection of myself and the women in my family. My family is a matriarchal family; in our reunions men are practically absent. I needed to understand that better.”
Understanding brought success. Released in 2011, La hija natural toured the international film festival circuit to critical fanfare, garnering jury and audience awards along the way, and was picked up for broadcast by such outlets as HBO and Cinemax. The film’s crowning achievement came the following year, when it was selected as the DR’s entry to the Academy Awards as best foreign language film. “I was in a hotel in Puerto Rico when I received the news,” recalls Tonos. “It was a surreal feeling. I sat down alone in my hotel room, smiled, and thanked God.”
The film didn’t win the Oscar, but by then Tonos had already moved on to her most ambitious project yet: Cristo Rey. To her, the film’s choice of subject was unavoidable. “As a director, my main motivation for making films is to explore our identity, not only as Dominicans, but also as Caribbeans,” she says. “If I’m walking down that road it’s impossible to leave the Haitians out.”
Making a film about two countries that share not only one island but a history going back over two hundred often tempestuous years was never going to be easy. Yet Tonos chooses to see things in a more sanguine light. “Destiny has put us in this unique position,” she says. “It has been difficult, but contrary to what most people may think, the Dominican-Haitian relationship hasn’t always been one of conflict. It’s a subject that just needs to be talked about without extreme opinions,” she adds, “with a human eye, making a conscious and objective effort to see the perspective of both sides.”
With the success of La hija natural as a calling card, and the hard-won experience of directing that film under her belt, Tonos — who acted as producer as well as director and co-writer — was able to put the funding in place for Cristo Rey relatively quickly. Finance came not only from her own country and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group of States (ACP), as well as from France, but also from a Haitian partner. “I’ve been friends with Laurence Magloire several years now,” says Tonos of her Haitian co-producer. “I have great admiration for her projects. It was a privilege for me to have her on the film.”
Yet the greatest challenge — actually making the film — was to come. Tonos knew that with such a hot-button subject, things were never going to be easy. Indeed, during the question-and-answer session at the film’s Toronto premiere last year (which Tonos, nine months pregnant at the time, was forced to miss), the cast of Cristo Rey spoke of on-set racism. In particular, they mentioned an incident when Yasser Michelén, the actor who plays Janvier’s Dominican half-brother, Rudy, was asked by certain members of the film crew how he could kiss Akari Endo (Jocelyn) after James Saintil (Janvier) had kissed her. How did Tonos deal with incidents like this?
“We talked about all this with an open mind,” she replies. “We were always trying to keep things lighthearted. We had a lot of young kids on the set who spoke their mind honestly about the things they heard while growing up. Situations like those described by Yasser only made us more convinced that what we were doing was right and badly needed.”
Despite such challenges, Tonos had a generally positive experience making the film. She’s most proud of shooting where she lays her scene, in the actual barrio of Cristo Rey, which in no small part gives the film its authentic feel. “Some people advised me against it due to security reasons,” she admits, “but I think this neighborhood was definitely our Verona. The barrio becomes one more character in the film.”
Having made its debut in Toronto, Cristo Rey opened in cinemas in the Dominican Republic last December. Total attendance was almost one hundred thousand people, which Tonos classifies as “pretty good,” especially given the film’s controversial subject matter. “Some of the reactions were pretty radical,” the filmmaker admits. “People are afraid of the issue.” (Since then the government, bowing to international pressure, has introduced legislation meant to provide a path to citizenship for those born to migrants in the country.)
Meanwhile, the film continues on a tour of international festivals, with the 2014 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival its next stop. The film also had a one-off screening in Haiti, with Tonos looking forward to a wider release there.
Now, having worked successfully with a Haitian partner on Cristo Rey, does Tonos see scope for collaborating with other Caribbean countries on her future films? “That’s a little secret dream of mine, to do a project with my Caribbean brothers and sisters, an ambitious one,” she confesses. Then, for the first and last time in our interview, she sounds a discordant note. “It makes me really angry, sometimes sad, when I think of how little we know about each other as Caribbean people. I didn’t meet anyone from Trinidad and Tobago until I was well into my thirties.”
Cristo Rey is the closing night film of the 2014 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, and screens on 30 September. Visit ttfilmfestival.com for more information.