Directed by Vashti Anderson, 2017, 93 minutes
The farther we get from where we once were, the more we yearn for that place and those we associate with it. Forget that we weren’t actually born there, or that the souls we most identify with the place no longer walk its earth. Passports may tell us we are citizens of a particular country, but what are such dictates when stacked against the affinities of the heart? What if home is elsewhere?
Such anxieties of being and belonging thread their way through Moko Jumbie, the first feature by Vashti Anderson, a Wisconsin-born, New York-based filmmaker, the daughter of a Trinidadian mother and a father from the United States. A supernatural search for the self as well as a tremulous, moonlit romance, Moko Jumbie is both haunting and haunted, a palpably realised fever-dream of a film.
At the film’s centre is Asha (Vanna Vee Girod), a young British woman of Trinidadian parentage and Indian ethnicity. A “Paki” in England, Asha is, with her studied goth persona, no less an outsider in Trinidad, where she arrives in the summer of 1990. Staying with her watchful aunt Mary (Sharda Maharaj) on the family’s run-down coconut estate, Asha realises that all isn’t as it seems here, including her enigmatic uncle Jagessar (a scene-stealing Dinesh Maharaj).
Along comes Roger (Jeremy Thomas), a pan-playing, crab-catching neighbour, one of “them Africans” in Mary’s phrase. Insouciant in his manner, with a cutlass trailing from his hand, Roger instantly catches Asha’s eye. The youngsters begin a secret affair.
In lesser hands such a setup might have been steered towards more obvious ends, but Anderson — buoyed by Shlomo Godder’s lambent cinematography — elegantly sidesteps the ordinary, imbuing her heartfelt island love letter with visual wonder, lyrical depth, and an invigorating sense of the fantastic. This is a glimmering, memorable film.
Directed by Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán, 2017, 90 minutes
From their first feature, Cochochi (2007), to their acclaimed drama Sand Dollars (2014), the directing duo of Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán have inched their films away from a loosely plotted, quasi-documentary form towards a more narratively traditional style. Sambá is the apotheosis of this development.
Deported from the United States, Cisco (Algenis Perez Soto) takes to fighting for money on Santo Domingo’s streets. He catches the eye of the Italian Nichi (Ettore D’Alessandro, the film’s writer), a once-promising pugilist who sees coaching Cisco as a shortcut to erasing his debts. Add a romantic interest, Luna (Laura Gómez), and a subplot featuring Cisco’s estranged son Leury (Ricardo Ariel Toribio), and Sambá hits most of the boxing picture’s storytelling beats (there’s even a Rocky-style training montage). A winsomely melancholic tone, however, saves Sambá from clichéd triumphalism — except in its final moments, when Cárdenas and Guzmán wisely give in to convention.
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Directed by Alejandro Andújar, 2017, 87 minutes
Ugly events unfold in beautiful surroundings in The Watchman, Alejandro Andújar’s patiently observed debut feature, about class exploitation and the insuperable divide between races in the Dominican Republic.
Once a fisherman, Juan (Héctor Aníbal) now makes a lonely living as caretaker of a beach house owned by Don Victor (Archie López). Victor’s feckless son, Rich (Yasser Michelén), shows up unannounced one day for a short holiday with friends: parasitic lothario Alex (Héctor Medina), naïve village girl Karen (Julietta Rodríguez), and coy, wealthy neighbour Belissa (Paula Ferry). The elements are in place for an increasingly tense and eventually explosive chamber piece.
Unlike The Maid or The Second Mother — recent Latin American cinematic portraits of domestic servitude — The Watchman isn’t interested in subverting the master-servant relationship, which adds an element of dourness to the proceedings. Aníbal gives a grimly stolid performance to match, Juan helpless and humiliated to the bitter end.