Two New Documentaries Give Caribbean Stories the Depths They Deserve
It is nighttime in Puerto Rico. A dembow beat, the rhythmic foundation of reggaeton, throbs, slicing into the thick air. A man glistens with sweat, an amber light bathing the droplets on his shoulders as he grinds gently against his dance partner. The crowd hollers as a beloved reggaeton anthem echoes in the distance.
In the lilt of the island’s familiar accent, a voice has spoken: “I don’t want to spend my whole life fighting.”
This scene arrives near the end of Cecilia Aldarondo’s documentary “Landfall.” It is a moment of everyday pleasure, but one that also contends with the psychic weight of political struggle. It captures what it means to still be coming to terms with Hurricane Maria and the 2019 uprising against government corruption. 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 life for Puerto Ricans.
This approach distinguishes “Landfall” and “Stateless,” two new films about Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in PBS’s POV program, from many documentaries produced for audiences in the United States. Caribbean narratives are rarely granted this kind of complexity onscreen. In the West, the Antilles are viewed as a locus of hardship and disorder, of victimhood and depravity. In this reductive vision, Puerto Ricans are rendered helpless victims of Hurricane Maria, while Dominicans and Haitians are enemies locked in a never-ending historical battle.
These views flatten complex human realities into rudimentary stereotypes, binding the people of these islands to their colonial and racial traumas. But “Landfall” and “Stateless” challenge these notions. The films lean into ambiguity and uncertainty, resisting a binary vision of pure abjection or simple victory. “Landfall” is prismatic, with no linear structure; it features multiple characters, creating an impressionistic composite of a community making sense of political instability and natural disaster. “Stateless” features three main characters, but pushes against the demand for a neat story about the triumph of the human spirit.
Both films exist in a documentary landscape that tends to default toward hope. Many of these films, especially ones about non-Western and nonwhite people intended for American audiences, follow a common thread: an underdog from a tough background confronts a social issue, and through sheer force of will, overcomes adversity. Think “The White Helmets,” the Oscar-winning short that follows volunteers rescue workers in the Syrian civil war. These types of films tend to level layered realities into digestible encounters and usher formidable social problems toward easy resolutions.
To disrupt this formula, “Landfall” assembles vignettes from across Puerto Rico. In the town of Bartolo, locals band together and transform a school into a communal living space, where meals and household goods are distributed among residents after aid fails to appear from the government or charities. Cryptocurrency entrepreneurs from the continental U.S. arrive in Mayagüez in search of profit, given the territory’s status as a tax haven.
Throughout, Puerto Ricans recalled their fears about the scarcity of food and gas after they’d spent hours waiting in line. There is pain, but also defiance: crowds swarmed the streets of Old San Juan chanting in Spanish “Struggle, yes! Surrender, no!” at the height of the 2019 uprising against political corruption and government neglect, demanding the resignation of Ricardo Rosselló, then the governor. One woman reflected on the pressure to quickly overcome the suffering the hurricane caused: “We try to erase the bad things, to set them aside. But I think we need to revisit them,” she said. “We can’t forget that we were left destitute.” There are moments of joy, too: shots of friends playing dominoes on the beach, shouting “¡Pa’l carajo María!” (“Screw María!”), even as they remember a neighbor who remains without electricity.
“Landfall” doesn’t linger in despondence or the ability to endure. Toward the end, celebratory crowds gather in the streets after the governor’s resignation, spurred by days of protests. Over footage of euphoric demonstrators, a series of pointed voice-overs from Puerto Ricans reverberate: “I feel happy about this victory,” said one. “I’m not ready to celebrate yet,” said another. “I don’t know if we’re in the beginning, or midway through,” reflects a third. It is this multiplicity that allows “Landfall” to excel. Without presenting a straightforward narrative of recovery after Maria, it considers both the unprocessed grief and the sense of relief that so many carry with them.
“Stateless,” directed by Michèle Stephenson, zeros in on three characters: a lawyer, Rosa Iris Diendomi Álvarez; her stateless cousin, Juan Teofilo Murat; and a Dominican ultranationalist, Gladys Feliz Pimentel. The film follows them in the aftermath of a landmark 2013 court ruling that stripped 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, where they lack documents, leaving them stateless.
Diendomi Álvarez offers legal aid to neighbors, helping them register with the government so they can access social services. Murat recounts how he was forced to return to Haiti and abandon his two children. Feliz Pimentel voices anti-immigrant sentiment that will feel familiar to audiences in the U.S., referring to Haitians as rapists and criminals and demanding the construction of a border wall.
It is difficult to watch. Feliz Pimentel is casual, sometimes nonchalant about her extremist views, and the contradictions are immediately evident: she says that “Haitians have always lived in fraternity with Dominicans,” and that they “deserve a better opportunity” — only one that’s not in the Dominican Republic. Murat’s journey is as heartbreaking as it is enraging; in one teary shot, he speaks about how difficult it is to be separated from his children, missing formative moments of their youth. Diendomi Álvarez is audacious throughout: she tries to help her cousin with his status, a hidden camera following their odyssey into the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the government. She even starts a self-financed congressional campaign.
The film is largely observational and perceptive, but there are moments of outrage, too. An interview at the Central Electoral Board, the agency responsible for the Dominican civil registry, exposes the neglect embedded in the political system and offers little recourse for Murat. But there is also joy: the thrill Diendomi Álvarez feels on her first visit to Haiti, her father’s homeland, and the poignant battle she wages as she campaigns, preaching about making change at a grass-roots level. Throughout, the film makes an effort to connect the problem of anti-Haitianism to the history of colonialism and dictatorship on the island, avoiding stereotypes.
At the end of “Stateless,” the fates of Diendomi Álvarez and Murat remain unclear. There is no fantasy of resilience or suggestion that one individual’s success will dismantle the injustices of the entire system. There are moments of uplift, but also ample attention to the difficulties that still linger for so many in the wake of denationalization.
By showing people in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic as nuanced figures, these films imagine more than simply a propitious future or a devastating present for the Caribbean. They refuse to pathologize and reduce entire groups of people. To cite an indelible phrase from the Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant, they “consent not to be a single being.”
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