Dir.: Michèle Stephenson; Documentary with Rosa Iris Diendomi Alvarez, Gladys Feliz-Pimental, Teofilo Murat; USA/Canada/Dominican Republic 2020, 97 min.
Stateless, a documentary debut for Canadian writer/producer Michèle Stephenson, follows the turbulent lives of two feisty women at the opposite end of the political spectrum in the Dominican Republic (DR), a country undergoing a long history of conflict, not least the massacre of 30 000 citizens under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in 1937.
In Trujillo’s drive to “whiten” the population of the DR he ordered the slaughter not only of Haitians, but also the darker skinned DR population. To cap it all, in 2013, a decree by the nation’s Supreme Court stripped about a few hundred citizens of their rights (dating back to 1929) despite their heritage, making them effectively stateless in their own country.
Human rights lawyer Rosa Iris Diendomi Alvarez sums up the status quo: “They are here, but they don’t exist”. We watch her touring the country, and helping the disenfranchised to claim their rights, keeping up with the often conflicting stance of the authorities, who try to keep as many people as possible disenfranchised. Alvarez is also actively campaigning against electoral corruption and is an advocate of social justice. Later, she will run for congress, but the game is rigged, her opponent is able to triumph with the help of many 100 pesos notes.
Meanwhile, her cousin Juan Teofilo Murat, who has spent all his life in the DR, now lives in Belladere, Haiti, close to the border. He is one of the many “dispossessed”, even though his documents, according to Alvarez, are proof of his DR citizenship. Their trip together into the DR, the pair are wearing hidden body cameras, is an ordeal. They are countless times stopped for no reason, always being asked “Are you Dominican?” On TV, we listen to DR president Danilo Medina, responding to claims that his government is currently expelling Haitian Dominicans, although he claims the opposite, introducing an identification document under a “national regularisation plan”.
His ‘benevolence’ is in stark contrast to the behaviour of his political allies, such as Gladys Feliz-Pimentel, a member of the Dominican Nationalist Party, who is a direct descendant of one of the nation’s founding fathers. She was once married to a black Dominican man, whom she divorced. Both her children are black. We meet her at a bridge crossing between the to countries, where she pontificates that “the Haitians coming into the country only want to murder DR citizens, chopping them up”. She recalls, the Israeli government telling the then President Hipolito Mejia to ‘build a wall’. But he, unfortunately, did not listen. Pimentel and her party are making up for it, we see many posters advocating the building of a wall, which, so Pimentel “is the basis for nation building”. Later we see her on the podium during a party congress, quoting Philippine president Duarte as a positive example of how things should be done, before starting to sing the country’s National Anthem.
Alvarez also recounts the story of Moraime, a young, black girl, who had to flee the country during the genocide of 1937. Her spirit now lives in the rivers of the country, where she takes care no harm comes to children. The wonderful images of magic realism are in stark contrast to the grim political reality of white supremacy – in a country were 80%of the population is black or of mixed race.
Stateless is a sober document. More evidence of Trump’s ideology has poisoned other countries. Six DoPs share the work, avoiding “Talking Heads” as much as possible. But there is no happy-ending: Rosa Iris Alvarez, harassed and threatened, has asked for political Asylum in the USA. It was eventually granted. AS