Sunday, October 24, 2021

Stateless (Apátrida)

Rosa Iris Diendomi Álvarez

Gladys Feliz-Pimintel with glasses

Juan Teófilo Murat (left) with Rosa Iris


Director Michèle Stevenson





STATELESS (Apátrida)         B                                                                                        Dominican Republic  USA  Canada  (97 mi)  2020  d: Michèle Stevenson

You’d think in the Caribbean or in South America where there are historically heavy mixtures of mixed races in the population that there would be little evidence of racism, having learned to live together for hundreds of years, but that would be wrong, as it seems wherever there are prevalent numbers of blacks, there is plenty of racism.  What’s taking place in the Dominican Republic, however, one of the largest Caribbean countries and a nation that shares an island in common with Haiti (located between Cuba and Puerto Rico, comprising the eastern portion of Hispañiola), is that they are eradicating all presence of Haiti in their population, developing white nationalist legislation that basically makes it illegal to share Haitian blood, described as the whitening of the population, where the government itself sanctions an outward hatred towards residents of Haiti or even Dominican nationals with Haitian blood, riling up the population into a deep resentment, calling them murderers and rapists, viewed as violent criminals that need to be deported, questioning their identification papers, making it illegal for them to remain in the Dominican Republic.  Although the Dominican Republic receives migrants from other black Caribbean states like Barbados and Jamaica, there is a particular hatred for Haitians.  The country has a history of this kind of thing, notably the ethnic cleansing genocide of the Parsley Massacre in 1937, as described in the Michele Wucker essay, The River Massacre: The Real and Imagined Borders of Hispaniola, when U.S.-backed Dominican dictator President Rafael Trujillo ordered the military to exterminate tens of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent.  Apparently that wasn’t enough, so in 2013 the Dominican Republic’s Supreme Court stripped the citizenship of anyone with Haitian parents going all the way back to 1929, causing more than 200,000 former Dominican citizens to immediately lose their citizenship, suddenly described as stateless, having no country to call their own, no identity, and no ability to work, vote, attend school, or receive heath benefits, instead living in limbo, where they are harassed and victimized until they simply leave on their own accord, treated as unlawful aliens with no rights, no identity papers, and no safety, where the entire nation is encouraged to point them out and terrorize them, victims of numerous hate crimes that include death threats, murder, and even lynching.  This takes racism to new heights, as side by side they look the same, no apparent difference, yet one is revered and the other hated, all sanctioned by the actions of the government.  It’s a horrifying story, making little sense to outsiders who fail to see what the fuss is all about, as to outside eyes, they basically look identical, much like the Hutu and Tutsi tribes that resulted in a full-scale Rwandan massacre in the early 90’s, but blacks have been selectively humiliated and mistreated since they arrived here from Africa as slaves, and that continuing mistreatment even today is simply staggering.  Spanish is the official language, yet Haitian Creole is French mixed with Spanish, and is mainly viewed as a foreign language that helps identify this unfortunate stratum in the population.  This is a film from a Panamanian and Haitian filmmaker that wears its agenda on its sleeve, hardly offering any counterbalance or providing much of a historical backdrop, instead there is a children’s story thread about a young girl attempting to escape the open assault of the Parsley Massacre which is interspersed throughout the entire picture as it’s being read to a child, feeling unnecessary and superfluous, as the point has already been made.  Additionally, certain dialogue loses its frame of reference, as we’re not sure who’s speaking, so the filmmaking itself leaves something to be desired, yet the overall impact of the subject matter is riveting and could hardly be more appropriate, coming on the heels of Brexit and Trumpism, where the floodgates of xenophobia and deeply entrenched racism are opening, like a Pandora’s Box. 

Historically there has been no real border separation, sharing more than 80 border crossings, as people on each side have been free to travel to the other side, yet there is more entrenched poverty in Haiti, causing many more Haitians to migrate across the border, which was never a problem before as there was plenty of available work in the sugar cane fields, with Haitian colonies or bateyes developing around the perimeter of the fields, having lived there for generations.  Many Haitians are lured into the Dominican Republic under false pretenses of finding fair work with good pay,  often making the journey through Dominican smugglers (the equivalent of kidnapping), where they are stripped of their identification documents, leaving them stateless and without the necessary documentation to return home and escape the bateyes, which are plagued with human rights abuses, subjected to insufficient drinking water and no proper sanitation facilities, effectively rendering them as modern day slaves, constantly under the watch of armed guards, with no legal rights whatsoever in this country.  This island is the spot of the first landing by Christopher Columbus in the New World in 1492, establishing the first European colony in the Americas, encountering the Taíno, an Indigenous people inhabiting much of the Caribbean who were all but exterminated within decades of that initial contact, dying in record numbers when the Spanish attempted to enslave them, a sign of racial discord and a foreboding of what’s to come, with the Spanish importing African slaves to work in dangerous gold mines, while the French in Haiti brought in slaves to work the sugar plantations.  Essentially the same people, the island was home to the first African black people in the Americas, part of the Atlantic slave trade, becoming pawns in the colonial expansion of the territories, ultimately leading to black slave rebellions that helped abolish slavery as early as 1793 in Haiti and 1822 in the Dominican Republic (but not enforced until their respective emancipations in 1804 and 1844), with blacks from Haiti and the Dominican Republic eventually fighting side by side in their mutual bid for independence and freedom.  Yet the nation often overlooks its African origins, failing to include their contribution to the nation’s history, attempting instead to view themselves as European, which is something of a charade, avoiding the obvious darker skin of a typical Dominican, where 80% of the population is black or biracial (more than half), with billboards and television ads across the country obsessed with the idea of promoting light-haired, light-skinned people with light-colored eyes as somehow superior to darker skin and darker eyes.  This is essentially the subject of Frantz Fanon’s 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks, explaining how the colonialist mentality often takes on the psychological vantage point of the white colonialist oppressor, with blacks stuck in an ingrained status of inferiority as perceived by the governing class which continually reinforces those demeaning racist attitudes, with the Dominican media and politicians constantly portraying Haitians as a threat to national identity and unity.  From the outset of the film people in mass are seen carrying belongings on their back crossing the border simply by walking across a shallow river, much of it documented by news cameras and many locals who capture it on their phones, viewing it as evidence of a recent phenomenon which they feel is growing out of control.  Gladys Feliz-Pimintel is a right-wing national who has drunk the Trump administration Kool-Aid, believing they should build a wall to keep the dark-skinned Haitians out (her own children are black, from a divorced Dominican man of Haitian descent), contending they are killers and rapists, blaming them for all the ills of Dominican society, yet never once holding her own government accountable, as they are advancing her goals by carrying out this ethnic purge. 

The heart and soul of the picture is Dominican-born Rosa Iris Diendomi Álvarez who is proud of her own Haitian heritage, an attorney and activist, becoming a resilient community rights advocate for the marginalized, going door to door to review the identity papers of the disenfranchised, encouraging them to fight for their rights, offering hopeful positivity and assistance, while receiving death threats herself that target her children as the next potential victims in this race war.  And therein lies the crux of the matter, the vulnerability of those who’ve had their citizenship stripped away with the stroke of a pen, making them and their supporters easy targets for a hateful lynch-mob mentality to come after them through threats on social media, which is allowed, offered no protection, where random incidents of violence occur every day, including murders, spurred on by vile acts of the government who themselves spew this racist venom through a disinformation campaign.  Those who are boxed in see no way out, as they’ve legally been declared illegal, not just taking away their livelihoods, but any hope for a brighter future.  As if to prove the point, we follow the case of Rosa’s cousin Juan Teófilo Murat, who was born a Dominican citizen, but has fled the country to live in Haiti to avoid the persecution, feeling he’s much safer and happier living in a country that doesn’t target and persecute their own citizens, or strip away their freedoms, while proving they’re not wanted.  While his papers seem to be in order, other than an expired ID card, Rosa urges him to request a hearing to sort it all out, even if that means subjecting himself to all manner of harassment.  What we discover is that he has two young children still living in the Dominican Republic that he rarely has a chance to see, stopping by to pick them up after school, where they are overjoyed to see him and heartbroken when he leaves, failing to comprehend what’s behind his lengthy absence.  The hearing is actually captured on camera, but doesn’t last long, as the hearing officer brings it to an abrupt halt, suspecting his documents are forged, never giving him a chance, rejecting his status even before the hearing begins, making a mockery of any concept of justice.  The State is offering no options for correcting simple errors and irregularities in documents like birth certificates and is instead rejecting them outright as counterfeit.  Just how much this deflates his state of mind is in ample evidence, frustrated further when he is unable to see his children again, returning back to Haiti even more sure he never wants to return to this country.  Rosa also decides to run for Congress, advocating for change, which does not appear to be a popular opinion except in the Haitian bateyes surrounding the sugar cane fields where they still speak French.  But even there her support is tenuous, made even more obvious on election day when voters hold out for payoff money, a Dominican tradition on election day, handing out $100 peso notes to buy votes, revealing how bribery and extortion are such common occurrences ingrained into normal democratic society, suggesting the system is rigged.  If the racial venom isn’t disgusting enough, this experience thwarts every avenue of hopeful change that Rosa Iris is fighting for by simply reinforcing the status quo, with Dominican President Danilo Medina cruising to re-election.  Countering the narrative that the state is expelling Haitian Dominicans, Medina claims the number of stateless people is zero, shifting the focus, contending every citizen must register for a new “national regularization plan,” which, of course, refuses all Haitian Dominican applicants, making it illegal for them to work or vote in the country.  The whitening of the Dominican Republic all but assured, this is state sanctioned ethnic cleansing, part of a global white supremacist agenda that is gaining traction and growing in countries all across the world, resulting in increasing violence against targeted marginalized groups (Transnational Agenda to Combat Rising White Supremacist ...).   

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