Screenshots (July/August 2017) | Film Reviews

This month’s film-watching picks

  • Sharing Stella
  • Death by a Thousand Cuts
  • A Caribbean Dream

Sharing Stella

Directed by Kiki Álvarez, 2016, 87 minutes

Back in December 2014, when Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced the resumption of normal relations between the United States and Cuba, it was anyone’s guess what the practical implications of that decision would be for the communist island. Would Cubanos start mixing their rum with Coca-Cola? Not yet, though with Vin Diesel racing a hot rod through Havana’s streets in the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious franchise, times are changing.

Kiki Álvarez’s Sharing Stella, a Cuban film, attempts to make some sense of the crossroads at which the country finds itself. Head of the fiction filmmaking department at Cuba’s International Film and Television School, Álvarez has a particular concern for the status of his nation’s young people, as seen in his earlier indie-inflected dramas Giraffes and Venice.

Set in Havana during that momentous month of December 2014, Sharing Stella follows a film director — named Kiki Álvarez, and played by Álvarez himself — as he seeks to cast the part of Stella, who he sees as a metaphor for contemporary Cuba, in a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Several young actors, women and men, including some who have starred in Álvarez’s previous films, and who all appear here as themselves, are considered.

As they speak with the director and among themselves, the actors talk candidly about their lives, their hopes, and their desires. News and radio coverage of Obama and Castro provide a counterpointing background commentary. It gives nothing away to say that at the end the casting remains undecided, the play unperformed.

To call Sharing Stella fiction feels inadequate; but it’s plainly no documentary. Self-reflexive and digressive, playful and contingent, it’s best seen as an essay, a modest, open-ended inquiry. It’s also as appropriate and laudable a response as any other to these uncertain times in Cuba’s history.

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Death by a Thousand Cuts

Directed by Juan Mejira Botero and Jake Kheel, 2016, 74 minutes

Recent years have seen an increasing number of films about the relationship between Haiti and its neighbour the Dominican Republic — specifically, about the treatment of Haitians and people of Haitian descent in the DR. One can now add Death by a Thousand Cuts to that number.

This US documentary approaches its subject via the issue of deforestation through illegal charcoal burning by Haitians in the DR, which turned fatal in 2012 with the machete murder of a Dominican park ranger. The filmmakers methodically investigate the crime, revealing through observation and interviews a network of corruption and exploitation (human and environmental). The film might have been better served, however, by a deeper understanding of Haitian history, and the factors that have led to the destruction of virtually all of the country’s forests.

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A Caribbean Dream

Directed by Shakirah Bourne, 2017, 82 minutes

In her previous features as a writer or director — the two Payday comedies and the Alison Hinds-starring suspense thriller Two Smart — Shakirah Bourne established herself as a purveyor of cheap-and-cheerful cinematic entertainment. So it comes as little surprise that in deciding on a Shakespeare adaptation for her next film, she should choose not merely a comedy but A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its “weak and idle theme,” its young lovers and fairies.

A Caribbean Dream is Bourne’s most assured work to date. Colourfully mounted, and set within what looks like the grounds of an old plantation, the film breezily mixes Barbadian English with the Bard’s, and substitutes the story of the Barbados-exiled King Ja Ja of Nigeria for the play within the play, The Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe. Where the film may be said to be most noteworthy, however, is in its casting, with all the couples pointedly interracial ones.

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Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
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