Interview with Haitian-Dominican Actor Jean Jean


[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] The full title of this article is “Haitian-Dominican Actor Jean Jean Is the Face of the DR’s Oscar Campaign, But at Home He’s Undocumented.” In this article, Amanda Alcántara (Remezcla, 10 November 2017) writes about the Dominican film Carpinteros [Woodpeckers] and interviews leading actor Jean Jean, who portrays Julian Sosa in the film. Here are excerpts; I highly recommend reading this excellent interview at Remezcla:

Life is bursting at the seams in Carpinteros (Woodpeckers), the heart-wrenching love story captivating audiences worldwide. The film tells the story of Julian Sosa (Jean Jean), a Dominican-Haitian inmate in the Santo Domingo prison of Najayo, who falls in love with Yaneli (Judith Rodríguez), who’s in the women’s jail across the courtyard. They communicate – and eventually fall in love – using a sign language invented by the prisoners, which they dub carpintear.

As the first Dominican movie to screen at the Sundance Film Festival and as the country’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submission, Carpinteros is making waves both at home and internationally. But the movie’s global promotion tour has also revealed an ironic tension; its lead actor Jean Jean – the face representing Dominican cinema to world – is actually undocumented in his home country.

Jean shared his struggles in a recent Facebook post, explaining that, like his character Julian, he too feels imprisoned. As a Haitian-born immigrant who has lived in the Dominican Republic for the last 25 years, he has been unable to renew his status since it expired in 2015 –  a problem that plagues many Haitian immigrants, despite the Dominican Republic’s controversial “regularization” program passed that year, which was meant to enable eligible Haitians and their descendants to formalize their citizenship or residency status.

As Jean Jean points out, Carpinteros tells an important story that resonates internationally, including in the United States, where Donald Trump rescinded the DACA program and has escalated deportations at an alarming rate. Jean Jean sees himself as a DREAMer, one who arrived to the Dominican Republic at a young age and is still stuck in immigration limbo. We spoke with Jean Jean about his character, his hopes for Carpinteros, and what it means to him to represent the Dominican Republic.

What would you say the main theme of Carpinteros is?  Carpinteros is a story that uses love as an excuse to speak about the yearning for freedom that these characters feel, and [the yearning] to connect despite the distance. This movie is really a hybrid between documentary and fiction, because José María Cabral was in the prison for more than nine months to write the script. He built the script based on real experiences (and 80% of the actors were actual inmates in the prison.) Once [Cabral] hired the professional actors, we created a film that was based on his script but that also incorporated our own experiences. [For example] he was open enough to include my real background as a Dominican-Haitian in the script, and that allowed us to explore Dominican-Haitian issues through this love story. In that sense, the film’s love story between a Dominican-Haitian man and a mulatto Dominican woman became a metaphor for the racial integration between the two people of the island. [. . .]

Do you think Julian’s character could impact the perception of immigrants from Haiti or Dominicans of Haitian descent?  The subject of immigration is the subtext underlying the entire film. I do think the film can have an impact, in fact it’s a universal theme; many viewers at film festivals around the world have identified with it since it alludes to a borderless reality. If you notice, the film touches on communication between one [prison courtyard] and another, and is set on an island where two countries live back to back but don’t speak the same language—these are the connections that folks are making at an international level, which we might be missing at the local level because we’ve normalized the situation with Haitians and  Dominicans (even if it’s not regulated by any laws.) Keeping the immigration system chaotic benefits the government, and it’s been that way since 1929, when Haitian laborers began migrating to the Dominican Republic to work the sugar cane fields. That’s when cheap Haitian labor began flooding into the D.R., until there came a moment when it needed to be regulated, like it has been in other countries. Carpinteros doesn’t delve deeply into these aspects [of immigration], it simply paints some brush strokes about a character who has this [Haitian] heritage. The film is largely about a prison romance. The fact that they’re confined in close proximity but still separated, that they have to create these mechanisms to communicate – it could be read as a metaphor for the relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It points to our need to create mechanisms of communication so that our people may coexist in healthier and more harmonious ways. [. . .]

For full interview, see


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