Whether documentary, experimental, or somewhere in between, there is no shortage of intriguing Dominican films through which to consider life on the island.
A report by Michael Piantini for Hyperallergic.
The lack of conversation about Dominican cinema is, in part, ingrained in the history of dictator Raphael Trujillo, political and economic discouragement of the arts, and blatant disregard from international and local film audiences. But in 2010, Law 108-10 was enacted to incentivize local and foreign film production with generous tax credits for the financiers, which skyrocketed production from a handful to hundreds over the past 12 years. Since then, exciting films have been coming out of the Dominican Republic. Whether a deep dive into community politics after a father is murdered or an absurdist documentary about an artificial beach, there is no shortage of intriguing films to consider. And while there are many contemporary works to highlight, there is still a fair amount from Dominican history that needs to be seen. This list is not conclusive nor comprehensive, but aims to generate more interest in Dominican film through ongoing conversations.
Liborio (dir. Nino Martínez Sosa, 2021)
There is nothing quite as satisfying as being present in a space and feeling connected to the world in which you live. That profound feeling of enlightenment is at the heart of Liborio’s magical realism about a peasant man (Vincente Santos) becoming spiritually reborn as a prophet and healer. The film takes place possibly sometime between 1916 and 1924, when the US occupied the Dominican Republic. Though the film is titled Liborio for its central character and his followers, director Sosa makes the landscape feel like the central character. Beautiful cinematography from DP Óscar Durán highlights just how magnificent nature can be, even in the face of imperialist violence. Liborio is available to stream on Mubi.
Machete Gillette… Mama (dir. Larry Gottheim, 1989)
The work of Larry Gottheim is associated with experiments in visual glitchiness and the absence of diegetic sound. However, his overlooked 1988 travel through the Dominican Republic and Haiti offers a time capsule of life on the island. Children play, people dance, and a nameless narrator details the life and tragedy of those he encounters. What Gottheim captures is unique in that it navigates Haitian-Dominican relations and presents the discriminatory treatment of those who cross the border. While the exact nature of Gottheim’s visit is uncertain, the resulting short film is a priceless moment of post-Trujillo Hispaniola. Machete Gillette… Mama is available on Fandor through Amazon Prime.
Hotel Coppelia (dir. Jose Maria Cabral, 2021)
From director Jose Maria Cabral, Hotel Coppelia revolves around the eponymous hotel bar and the Dominican Civil War of 1965, specifically about the women who lived and worked at the bar throughout the conflict. The film is antiwar and anti-imperialist and represents the trauma brought on by the civil war (similar to Cabral’s new film Parsley). Featured in the film are the militia supporting the democratically-elected Juan Bosch and the US-backed conservative military that fear Bosch’s popularity as a socialist. Hotel Coppelia is available to stream on HBO Max.
La serpiente de la luna de los piratas (Serpents of the Pirate Moon) (dir. Jean-Louis Jorge, 1973)
Nearly 40 years before the DGCINE (Dominican Republic Film Commission) was established, Jean-Louis Jorge made transgressive waves in the American underground scene. After finishing his studies at UCLA, Jorge made his first feature with collaborators he met during his time in Los Angeles. The resulting Serpents of the Pirate Moon is a peculiar story about Angel (Sylvia Morales) and the nature of life as a nightclub dancer. In relation to the mainstream heteronormativity that would follow out of Dominican cinema (mainly comedies and telenovelas), and the counterculture movement of the 1970s (Shirley Clarke and Dennis Hopper,) Jorge’s film is incomparable. La serpiente de la luna de los piratas is available on Vimeo courtesy of Aurora Dominicana.
Site of Sites (dir. Natalia Cabral and Oriol Estrada, 2016)
Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein theorized that movies are built from two opposing ideas combined to make a new third idea. Site of Sites uses Eisenstein’s foundation to comment on the absurdist reality of the Dominican tourism economy in this documentary that showcases people of working-class and affluent backgrounds existing in a beach town where an artificial beachfront is being constructed. As directing duo Cabral and Estrada navigate these liminal spaces of excess, all I can think about is how sugarcane, once the number national export, has since been replaced with foreign vacationers seeking temporary refuge from the woes of their metropolitan life. Also worth recommending is “A Small Place,” by Jamaica Kincaid, as a companion essay to this film (although it is about Antigua.) Site of Sites is available to stream on GuideDOC.
Cocote (dir. Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias, 2017)
The death that sparks Cocote’s plot consumes a third of the film’s runtime. Ritual mourning is considered with utmost sacredness as director Arias bridges themes of revenge with moral tenets of Dominican society. Alberto (Vincente Santos), an Evangelical Christian, returns to his hometown after his father is killed but does not wish to participate in the nine-day ritual funeral. At the film’s core is an inspection of identity within the family and how family mythology touches everything. If not for Alberto’s family debts, his father would not have died and he would still be away from his family, without having to confront his past. Beautiful cinematography, brimming with character as it switches to different aspect ratios, colors, and film formats (celluloid and digital), complements Alberto’s internal struggle. Cocote is a Dominican film like no other in its modernist approach to navigating nuanced family dynamics, warranting excitement for Arias’s next project. Cocote is available to stream on Projectr.
My American Girls: A Dominican Story (dir. Aaron Matthews, 2001)
The Dominican diaspora is vast throughout the Caribbean, all the way to pockets of Spain, but it is concentrated in New York City. My American Girls follows a family living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, looking at the generational differences between the matriarch Sandra Ortiz and her three daughters. Sandra and her husband, Bautista, work to maintain a comfortable living for their kids but also to send remittances to family members back in the Dominican Republic. The film’s powerful grasp on Dominican migration to the US, which peaked in the mid-1990s, offers a relatable story to many immigrant communities, and complicates that narrative further when the daughters feel shame in identifying as Dominican as they strive to assimilate to be like all the other American girls. My American Girls is as steeped in sociopolitical context as it is heartfelt, and it brings needed addition to the conversation on the Dominican diaspora. My American Girls: A Dominican Story is available to stream on Alexander Street through your local library.