Apátrida (Stateless): I Miss My Lemongrass | 2020 Tribeca Film Festival
Updated: Apr 29
By: Hooman Razavi
Peter Jackson, a well-known film director once commented “The most honest form of filmmaking is to make a film for yourself.” Unquestionably true for many artists and documentary makers who want to see their creative ideas in action and materialized, but these films may equally belong to the subjects whose lives were depicted and the world audience who view these creative expressions. Stateless (Apátrida) directed by Michele Stephenson- co-director of American Promise is no exception; It is a personal for the veteran filmmaker and human rights lawyer, but as much and as significant, a story to narrates the lives of 200,000 subjects in Dominican Republic whose political identity are in the state of limbo.
Apátrida takes place at Caribbean Island in Dominican Republic. It narrates a story of Dominican citizens’ of Haitian decent lives and their struggle to be recognized and provided with basic political status. The actions revolve around the election campaign of Rosa Iris, a lawyer who not only want to run for Congress seat in the coming election, but she is driven to seek justice and legitimacy for her countrymen whose rights as normal citizens have been denied. Apart from Rosa, the plot involves other protagonists who show the other facets and the complexity of this Island’s social reality.
The review is based on the analysis of three major and two minor characters leading to a further analysis and final thoughts.
Three Leading Characters
I) Rosa Iris- Lawyer- Advocate of Apátrida rights
As the main protagonist of the documentary, she is ubiquitously in the frames advocating for the rights of the stateless. Right after the opening scene till the end, she takes the centre stage and lead the fight to give voice to those whose rights have been stripped by the state. As a mother of Haitian lineage, she runs as a candidate for the Congress and openly pushes for changes in the discriminatory laws. The viewers can easily sympathize with her bold and fearless character, who engages passionately with marginalized subjects before and during the election; and, despite threats to her family, she is a mother and protective of her daughters and immediate family. Interestingly, the close ups and camera movement effectively show her leading role in the whole story and the changes in her psychological states during the time-space of the film.
II) Juan Teofilo- Dominican from Haitian lineage
Juan is a relative of Rosa Iris, and another protagonist who is a prime example of Apátrida tormented subject.. The viewers first get to know him as Iris travels to Haiti and rejoin with her cousin. His conversations and the tragic tale of his life and how his family is affected makes it much easier for the audience to understand and feel the magnitude of suffering and how many stateless citizens as Juan suffers similar conditions. Apart from him, the film depicts the struggle of other Apátrida subjects especially in the border areas, how they seem to have no legal status and the ways the state denies their rights.
III) Gladys- Nationalist symbol- Against Apátrida rights
She can be viewed as the antagonist and on the side of government to not grant Apátrida citizenship rights. Interestingly, as depicted she is a complex character who is not red-neck and express her reasons for the exclusionary measures. In one scene, where she is seen in the memorial of Capotillo uprising of 1862, the viewer can get a sense of the rationalization of women and opponent of Apátrida rights. Her portrayal, actions and dialogues, well-weaved in the whole course of the film make the viewers to understand the range of views and their root cause easier.
Two Minor Characters
IV) Dominican Republic & Nature
Stephanson’s camera takes viewers to see Dominican Republic and its many facets and subjects. The camera aptly shows the lives of ordinary Dominican people, their state of poverty and the militarized and controlled spaces they must live under. Moreover, one the one hand, one can get a sense of how the dire state of the border areas between Haiti and Dominican Republic are like; and on the other hand, the natural scenery as sugarcane, role of it in the subsistence of the citizens are beautifully foregrounded too.
V) President Danilo Medina
Other than Gladys who represent the nationalist sentiment, the current president, who at the time of the shooting was campaigning for his re-election is also a character that drives the story. The close-ups (extreme) on his face and the number of scenes in which he is present makes the viewer to understand his role and weight around this issue and challenges of the reinstatement of the rights. In his speech’s, Medina denies that the racism exists, though the way the camera and editing make the viewers to see him undermines those fancy words.
Analysis & Interpretation
It is not rather too difficult to understand the main intentions of the director to make this documentary and what she has in mind to communicate. The title Apátrida may remind the world audience of Spielberg’s “The Terminal” and in that light, viewers can appreciate the depth at which this real issue has been brought to world attention, focusing on its local nuances and broader implications. The opening and final scenes have the qualities of dreamy and surreal imagery, but right choices to evoke the images of suffering and uncertainty. The rest of the scenes and actions reinforces the main themes of tension, exclusion and disenfranchisement. A great example of this scene is when the camera takes us to see the Haitian colony somewhere in the border area. The storytelling is at its highest and a viewer can really feel the frustration of residents who are politically excluded, live a miserable life, but still narrate a story of love for their country and resilience in the face of all the inflicted pains.
The other aspect that Stateless aptly problematize is what it means and feels to not belong to a community, even though you deserve to belong. Juan words can jolt the viewers to think of what he goes through when he explicitly vents about his current state of life and refusal to live among corrupt and racist people. The scene that he cries may seem to be the dramatic peak of the documentary but not many viewers may find it feign and fabricated. As equally important, in this analysis, the viewers have given the opposing view, represented by the government and nationalist organization of why they think this issue persists and why they think Haitian people can not be trusted and given equal rights. The judgment is finally by the viewers, but one can sense and argue that the passionate plea that Rosa makes during the campaign, to the residents, to vote based on your conscience, not money and colony resident’s reminder that for them service to the country matters, show the weight and evidence of the arguments in favour of reversing the racist policies and making the long-held national solidarity back in national agenda .
The last point that one can make is the extent by which this single issue has impacted the lives of all citizen in the country, and the broader issue of the interconnectedness of social problems. The car scene reinforces this dimension as, during the trip to border areas, the camera is planted inside the car and show one by one the checkpoints and the encounter of characters who are being asked to prove their residency and status. This depiction, once seen along with many other scenes in which Rosa and Juan struggle to gain recognition for who they are and subjected to forms of state violence and bureaucratic discipline highlights what happens when one does not fight for rights of the marginalized in her society. In brief, the voice-over, titles and dreamy scenes minimize the overwhelming effect of real scene, but it provokes in us, in a good sense to think about the social marginalization of characters and what we would do if in case this happens to us and in our own community and country.
As a filmmaker, Michele Stephenosn’s believes in the power of storytelling and how it can change lives. The film Apátrida is a fine example of the director’s viewpoint and an attempt to inform and change public opinion inside the Dominican Republic and the wider world around the issue. As the documentary showed the interweaving lives of Rosa, Juan, and Gladys, it is more evident to the viewers that it takes more than an election campaign to change cultures and perspectives. The film has just opened the dialogue, but a bumpy road is ahead.