Three years ago on this site, I extolled the virtues of a new creative cinematic energy from the Dominican Republic. The film I discovered at that time, La montaña (2013), went on to win the Lexus Audience Award as Favorite Documentary of all the documentaries at our 2014 edition, and was the country’s official submission to Spain’s Goya Academy Awards. Laura Amelia Guzman, working with her Mexican partner Israel Cardenas, continues to lead the artistic charge for the country, with Sand Dollars (2014) screening around the world (including Miami) and landing US theatrical distribution; her next project, the documentary Noeli en los paises, recently won IFF Panama’s Primera Mirada section for works-in-progress support and looks to be ready for next season’s circuit. (I was on the jury that chose that project to win finishing funds and a screening at Cannes Film Market next month.) Other new talent is cresting on this wave as well: Leticia Tonos’ second film, Cristo Rey (2015) , was screened at Toronto International Film Festival and numerous others, including Miami; Guillermo Zouain’s road-trip comedy Algun lugar (2015) world premiered in Miami and went on to a healthy run at numerous international festival as well.
I’m excited to report that coming soon is another big leap forward for the growth and confidence of indigenous production in the Dominican Republic industry – a film with the working title of Jeffrey, a first feature by Yanillys Perez, a self-taught filmmaker with a number of shorts to her credit, including “Techos Rotos” (2014), which screened at one of the world’s foremost festivals for the short form, Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. I recently screened a rough cut of the film at the same IFF Panama Primera Mirada workshops where I saw Laura Amelia Guzman’s work-in-progress documentary.
It’s said that necessity is the mother of all invention, and an important strand of Latin American cinema in this past decade has evolved by gifted artists who have subverted the daunting economic challenges of narrative filmmaking. Joining acclaimed films like Julio Hernandez Cordon’s Miami grand-prize winning Marimbas from Hell (2010) in the project of constructing visual fictions around real-life characters and milieus, Jeffrey enters our dreamworld and charms away all resistance.
Jeffrey is about a 12-year-old limpiavidrio, one of numerous kids working the streets of Santo Domingo by jumping on cars stopped for red lights at intersections and proceeding to clean their windshields without invitation, in the hopes of obtaining a few pesos tip from the drivers inside. He lives in Los Tres Brazos, a poor slum of the capital, far away and upstream from the picturesque tourist ideal of the Zona Colonial on the banks of Rio Ozama. He’s one of 9 children being raised by his single mother, as his alcoholic father lives far away and rarely visits. And Jeffrey, who christens himself “La Pesadilla” (“The Nightmare”) dreams of being a reggaeton singer, following in the footsteps of one of his older brothers.
What makes Jeffrey unique and special is that Perez has a clear understanding, like Taba Blanchard did in La montaña, of an audience’s deep emotional identification with heros. The lack of this primal apperception has long been a weakness of Dominican (and often Latin American) cinema, but in Jeffrey, it’s an unabashedly central concept. Like the title characters of Billy Elliot (2000) and Viva (2015), which opens this week at MDC’s Tower Theater, Jeffrey is a kid with a dream and an imaginative dream world. (His personal temenos is a majestic neighborhood tree that he often climbs to be alone; it’s a tree, he says, “that walks at night”.)
Perez’s palpable affection for her characters and for the sights, sounds and idiosyncratic behavior of Santo Domingo’s capitaleños provides the freshness and authenticity that propels Jeffrey into new territory for Dominican cinema. It takes a real artist to notice the colors of everyday life and to be able to frame it for the screen in ways that shake with the same joy we experience off-screen. Simple scenes of boys practicing their dance moves on each other on a makeshift backyard stage; of babies wailing over the dialogue of teenage barbers who don’t even notice; of crudely drawn, misspelled cardboard signs encouraging a disconnected middle class to listen to Jeffrey’s free music (distributed on unmarked CDs in the same manner he tackles his limpiavidrio activities); all make up the textures and multidetailed imagery that Perez has carefully constructed in a diverting 78-minute pattern.
The Jeffrey of Jeffrey is played by Jeffrey himself. What began as a documentary project 3 years ago evolved into a manipulated fiction, as Perez began to exert her hand on shaping the raw material of Jeffrey’s personality, and his family and neighborhood life, into a fairy tale story structure, complete with a Billy Elliot-style climactic breakthrough on a Dominican TV talk show at the film’s end point. – Jaie Laplante.