It’s night in Puerto Rico. A Dembow-Beat, the rhythmic foundation of reggaeton, pulsates, cuts into the thick air. A man glitters with sweat, an amber-colored light dips the droplets on his shoulders while he gently rubs against his dance partner. The crowd screams as a popular reggaeton anthem echoes in the distance.
In the tone of the island’s familiar accent, a voice spoke: “I don’t want to fight all my life.”
This scene comes towards the end of Cecilia Aldarondo’s documentary “Landfall”. It is a moment of everyday pleasure, but it also has to contend with the psychological weight of the political struggle. It captures what it means to still come to terms with Hurricane Maria and the 2019 government corruption rebellion. It is an image of warmth and intimacy, but one that refuses to put aside the difficult feelings that have accompanied the last few years of Puerto Ricans’ lives.
This approach distinguishes Landfall and Stateless, two new films about Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic on PBS’s POV program, from many documentaries produced for audiences in the United States. Caribbean narratives are seldom allowed this kind of on-screen complexity. In the West, the Antilles are viewed as a place of need and disorder, sacrifice and depravity. In this reductive vision, Puerto Ricans become helpless victims of Hurricane Maria, while Dominicans and Haitians are enemies caught in a never-ending historical battle.
These views smooth complex human realities into rudimentary stereotypes and bind the people of these islands to their colonial and racial trauma. But “Landfall” and “Stateless” call these ideas into question. The films are prone to ambiguity and uncertainty and defy a binary vision of sheer rejection or simple victory. “Landfall” is prismatic, with no linear structure; It features multiple characters that form an impressionistic mix of a community that conveys political instability and natural disasters. “Stateless” consists of three main characters, but defies the demand for a proper story about the triumph of the human spirit.
Both films exist in a documentary landscape that tends to inspire hope. Many of these films, especially those about non-Western and non-white people intended for American audiences, follow a common thread: an outsider with a hard background faces a social problem and with sheer willpower overcomes adversity. Think “The White Helmets,” the Oscar-winning short film that follows volunteer rescue workers in the Syrian civil war. These types of films tend to flatten layered realities into digestible encounters and lead daunting social problems to simple solutions.
To break this formula, Landfall is putting together vignettes from all over Puerto Rico. In the town of Bartolo, locals are banding together and transforming a school into a communal living space where meals and housewares are distributed among residents after no help arrives from the government or charities. Given the territory’s status as a tax haven, cryptocurrency entrepreneurs from the continental US arrive in Mayagüez in search of profit.
Puerto Ricans kept remembering their fears about food and gas shortages after waiting in line for hours. There is pain, but there is also defiance: crowds streamed through the streets of Old San Juan, singing in Spanish “Fight, yes! Give up, no! “At the height of the 2019 uprising against political corruption and government neglect, calling for the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló, then governor. One woman reflects the pressure to quickly overcome the suffering caused by the hurricane:” We try to erase the bad things, to put them aside. But I think we need to rethink them, “she said.” We cannot forget that we have been left penniless. “There are also moments of joy: shots of friends, playing dominoes on the beach and shouting “¡Pa’l carajo María!” (“Screw María!”) while remembering a neighbor who is without electricity.
“Landfall” does not dwell in despair or the ability to endure. Towards the end, after the resignation of the governor, solemn crowds gather on the streets, spurred on by days of protests. Recordings of euphoric demonstrators echo a series of pointed voice-overs by Puerto Ricans: “I’m delighted with this victory,” said one. “I’m not ready to party yet,” said another. “I don’t know whether we are at the beginning or in the middle,” ponders a third. It is this diversity that distinguishes “Landfall”. Without presenting a direct narrative of Mary’s recovery, it takes into account both the unprocessed grief and relief that so many bring with it.
“Stateless,” directed by Michèle Stephenson, focuses on three characters: a lawyer, Rosa Iris Diendomi Álvarez; her stateless cousin Juan Teofilo Murat; and a Dominican ultra-nationalist, Gladys Feliz Pimentel. The film follows them after a landmark 2013 court ruling that stripped of citizenship from Dominicans of Haitian descent born after June 1929. The decision left thousands without access to government benefits and forced many to return to Haiti, lacking documents and leaving them stateless.
Diendomi Álvarez provides legal assistance to neighbors and helps them register with the government so that they can access social services. Murat recounts how he was forced to return to Haiti and abandon his two children. Feliz Pimentel expresses an anti-immigration sentiment that will be familiar to the US public, describes Haitians as rapists and criminals and calls for the construction of a border wall.
It’s hard to watch. Feliz Pimentel is casual, sometimes casual about her extremist views, and the contradictions are immediately apparent: she says that “Haitians have always lived in fraternity with Dominicans” and that they “deserve a better opportunity” – just one that isn’t in that Dominican is republic. Murat’s journey is as heartbreaking as it is angry; In a tearful recording, he talks about how difficult it is to part with your children by missing formative moments in their youth. Diendomi Álvarez is consistently bold: she tries to help her cousin with his status, a hidden camera that follows her odyssey into the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the government. She is even starting a self-financed congress campaign.
The film is largely observational and empathetic, but there are moments of outrage as well. An interview with the Central Electoral Board, the authority responsible for the Dominican registry office, exposes the neglect that is anchored in the political system and offers Murat little way out. But there is also joy: the excitement that Diendomi Álvarez felt on her first visit to Haiti, her father’s home, and the poignant struggle she wages in her campaign to preach grass-roots change. Throughout, the film tries to connect the problem of anti-Haitianism with the history of colonialism and dictatorship on the island and to avoid stereotypes.
At the end of “Stateless”, the fates of Diendomi Álvarez and Murat remain unclear. There are no fantasies of resilience or indications that the success of an individual will reduce the injustices of the entire system. There are moments of amusement, but also a lot of attention to the difficulties that so many still face after denationalization.
By showing the people of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic as nuanced characters, these films envision more than just a happy future or a devastating present for the Caribbean. They refuse to pathologize and reduce entire groups of people. To quote an indelible phrase from the Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant, “you agree not to be a single being”.