José María Cabral on the set of Carpinteros (Woodpeckers).Courtesy of José María Cabral
José María Cabral is a 28-year-old Dominican film director whose fifth movie, Carpinteros (Woodpeckers), will be screened at the Miami Film Festival this Friday, March 10. The feature, set in the Dominican Republic’s infamous Najayo prison, tells the story of two lovers forced by distance and incarceration to use sign language to communicate. The motion picture was filmed on location at Najayo, at some danger to the cast and crew, with actual prisoners and guards working as characters and extras. The cinéma verité style of the movie and its positive reception on the independent film circuit mark a coming-of-age moment for cinema from the Dominican Republic.
New Times caught up with Cabral on Skype to talk movies, prison life in the Caribbean, and what it’s like to be the enfant terrible of Dominican cinema.
New Times: Why should viewers see this movie? José María Cabral: I don’t like to say that people have to see a movie. I’m just putting a premise out there, and if people are interested, they can go see it. The thing that drove me to make this movie was the contrast of shooting a film about love — in jail. We always think about prisons as places of violence and hate, full of people who can't live with each other. But then you see that even in the worst places, like Najayo, like La Victoria, some of the worst prisons, there’s love. So if you want to some hope in humanity and you like to see a different approach to that theme, then you should come see the film. But you don’t have to.
Tell us about the process of making this film. How did you get access to the prison? What was it like working with actors who are incarcerated? Were you ever in danger? Getting access was pretty easy, actually. I just called up the attorney general of the Dominican Republic, asked for permission, and he approved. The obstacle here was not getting in, but getting involved — forming the relationship of trust with the inmates and authorities. I spent nine months visiting the prison, just getting to know people. I made a lot of friends in there, and some enemies as well. To some, I represented threat. Some people there were really not happy with me. There was a scene where Jan Jan [the lead actor] had to enter the prison, so I told two or three of the prisoners to confront him as he came in, and then I motioned to two other ones to try to get his shirt off or something and then leave him alone. And then what happened was that the prisoners started playing with him, not in a violent way, but there were like 20, 30 people trying to hit his head, and it was getting out of control, and the police showed up. It was turning into a riot. I had to jump in there and bear-hug Jan Jan and drag him out. I got hit as well.
So you started a prison riot? Yes, essentially. How did you come up with the script for this film? A friend of mine who was giving classes in the Najayo prison turned me on to the idea. He said, ‘Most of my students don’t even show up to class because they’re too busy talking to girls on the other side of the prison.’ And I’m like, ‘How are they talking to girls on the other side of the prison?’ And he said I just had to go and see it. So I went and saw that they had developed their own sign language. The distance [between the male and female wards] was pretty big. It was 150 meters between the men and the women, with a fence. But they developed their own language, and they worked on their eyesight as well so they could read the signs. And they were passionate about it; there were people in there who were passionately in love. So I had to create a script about it.
The U.S. is having a debate about the high rate of incarceration of African-American men and of the role that prisons should play in society. Obviously, the Dominican Republic is very different, but are there portions of that debate that viewers might identify with in your film? Is there a similar consciousness over there of the role that prisons play in keeping certain sectors of society in a cycle of poverty? I’d say it’s totally a cycle. The reinsertion of inmates into society is part of the theme of the film, and part of what I wanted to show is that prison in the DR does nothing to help these people lead normal lives on the outside. A lot of people who leave are back in within six months. There are two kinds of prisons in the Dominican Republic: the old model and the new. In the new, everybody has a bed, there’s a bathroom for every four people, there's security, there’s food, etc. But the majority of prisons are the old model, which is just like a city. It’s a bunch of people in a space, and they do whatever they want. There are grocery stores; there are cell phones and computers. When you put people in the old model, there’s no chance they’re gonna improve. Najayo is half old and half new model because they ran out of money while building it, and it’s totally up to chance if you get a bunk or sleep on the floor. Even though this is a love story, the film addresses all of these issues.
For somebody who doesn’t know anything about Dominican cinema, what are some of your favorite Dominican movies that you would recommend? Film is blowing up down here. We passed a film law five years ago. Six years ago, we were making four films a year. Now we are making 20, and there’s a higher quality to them; more and more are getting to festivals. The films I would recommend are Dólares de Arena (Sand Dollars) by Laura Amelia Guzmán, De Pez en Cuando (Once Upon a Fish) by Francisco Adolfo Valdéz, Cristo Rey by Leticia Tonos, Caribbean Fantasy, which is a documentary by Johanne Gomez, and Jeffrey by Yanillys Pérez, which is also a documentary. You’ll notice that women are doing the best in Dominican cinema. We’ve got great female directors.
What do you think of Miami as a city for cinema, and for Caribbean cinema specifically? I’m really happy and proud to be a part of the film festival there. Miami is a part of the Caribbean; it’s full of people from the Caribbean. I think there's such a diversity there that's so important for great cinema. Moonlight is a great example of that.
What’s your next project? I’m actually finishing a draft of my next script. I’ll be shooting this year. I can’t talk about it, but it’s inspired [by] things I had an experience researching. It’s international, but it’s a local Dominican story. It’s a very peculiar tale. You’re gonna love it.
Carpinteros (Woodpeckers) 9 p.m. Friday, March 10, at Tower Theater, 1508 SW Eighth St., Miami; 305-643-8706; miamifilmfestival.com. Tickets cost $13.
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