No money, no love

Laura Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, partners in life and in filmmaking, tell intimate stories with a lyrical touch. Their latest film, exploring sex tourism in the Dominican Republic, is a step towards something even more ambitious, writes Jonathan Ali

Laura Guzmàn and Israel Càdenas met at film school in Cuba. Images courtesy Laura Guzmàn and Israel CàdenasScene from Jean Gentil. Images courtesy Laura Guzmán and Israel CárdenasBased on actor Jean Remy Genty’s own experience, Jean Gentil is the story of a Haitian living in the Dominican Republic. Images courtesy Laura Guzmán and Israel CárdenasSand Dollars features celebrated actress Geraldine Chaplin and newcomer Janet Mojica. Images courtesy Laura Guzmán and Israel CárdenasImages courtesy Laura Guzm‡n and Israel C‡rdenas

Laura Amelia Guzmán is recounting a story that would make any filmmaker shiver with dread. Last November at the International Film Festival of India in Goa, with ten minutes of the screening of her and her husband Israel Cárdenas’s film Sand Dollars left to go, the audience got up and left the theatre.

“We were like, ‘They hate it, oh my God!’” exclaims Guzmán, via Skype from Santo Domingo, where she was born and raised. But this wasn’t the case. She subsequently found out that most of the audience had gone to join the queue for another film. There wasn’t even the usual post-screening question-and-answer session for the filmmaker to receive feedback about her work.

Naturally, Guzmán was disappointed. Leaving the theatre, however, something interesting happened. An elderly couple who had remained until the film’s end sidled up to her and said, “This film is ninety-nine per cent Goa.”

The comment was a testament to the universality of good cinema in general, but the couple was probably referring to this film’s particular subject: sex tourism. Loosely adapted from a novel by the French writer Jean-Nöel Pancrazi, Sand Dollars, released in 2014, is a drama about Anne, a moneyed and elderly French woman living in the Dominican Republic, who is deep into a fraught, dangerously unequal relationship with a much younger Dominicana, Noelí. Anne starts to make plans to take Noelí back to Europe to live with her. When the young woman reveals that she’s pregnant, Anne’s impossible dream starts to come undone.

Sand Dollars had its premiere last September at the Toronto International Film Festival, to excellent reviews. Variety magazine praised the film’s “remarkable sensitivity and exacting verisimilitude” and called it “a psychologically nuanced portrait” as well as Cárdenas’s and Guzmán’s “best film yet.” The Hollywood Reporter deemed it “thoughtful” and “subtle.”

There has also been much praise for the film’s actresses. As Noelí, first-timer Janet Mojica gives a movingly understated, almost wordless performance. This plays off well against the more emotionally charged turn by the actress portraying Anne, the seasoned Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of cinema’s most iconic figure, Charlie Chaplin.

Making critically acclaimed films and working with cinematic royalty is a world away from what Guzmán, born in 1980, first wished to do with her life. “I wanted to be a diplomat,” she says. “I wanted to study international relations.” But her mother (a retired art director, who worked on Sand Dollars) said, “Maybe you should spend a year in Italy finding out what you really want to do.”

In Italy she took some photography courses — her father is a photographer — and when she returned to Santo Domingo she enrolled in the university of fine arts, majoring in photography. “Then, when I got my first digital camera, photography started moving. So I started making little moving stories.”

 

Guzmán’s next step was to enter the Gabriel García Márquez–founded International School of Cinema and Television in Cuba, where she studied cinematography. Here she met her husband-to-be, who was doing a course after several years of making music videos in his native Mexico.

After graduating, Guzmán and Cárdenas worked as camera assistants on film shoots in the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Guzmán also had the good fortune to work in Haiti on Heading South (2005), French filmmaker Laurent Cantet’s adaptation of some short stories by Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière. The experience of working on Heading South — the tale of a trio of wealthy North American women who come to Haiti for the purpose of having sex with young men — was to prove crucial later on.

Not long after this, Guzmán and Cárdenas worked on a film in the remote deserts of Chihuahua, in north-west Mexico. When the shoot wrapped they took a horse-riding vacation in the mountains nearby. Here they encountered the indigenous Tarahumara people, and the idea came to them of making their first film. “We thought maybe of doing a documentary, but then we said, ‘No, if you make a documentary about the Tarahumara, people would never want to see it. So let’s do something like fiction, something really bright and luminous.’”

“Something like fiction” is a good description of Cochochi (2007), which means “Place of the Pines” in Tarahumara. Inspired by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s classic film Where Is My Friend’s Home?, and featuring non-professional actors playing lightly fictionalised versions of themselves, Cochochi is a hybrid work, a blend of narrative and documentary filmmaking, which follows two young brothers (Evaristo and Luis Antonio Batista, brothers in real life) as they steal their grandfather’s horse to deliver a package to a distant village.

Touching on the theme of the clash between indigenous and western cultures, Cochochi had its world premiere at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. The film was a critical success, and Guzmán and Cárdenas were able to give something back to the Batistas, by securing scholarships for the boys to attend secondary school.

While editing Cochochi, the couple went to Cárdenas’s home city of Monterrey, where they began visiting an elderly Cuban actress, Carmen “Carmita” Ignarra. Once known as “Cuba’s little princess,” and briefly a model for the artist Diego Rivera, Ignarra had left her island in the 1950s for a career in Hollywood that was sadly cut short, and was now living out her last, embittered days in a crumbling mansion.

Intrigued by Ignarra’s complex character and colourful history, Guzmán and Cárdenas decided to make a film with her. Guzmán interviewed the often-combative erstwhile star for material to help feed the script, while Cárdenas filmed the process. But when a young actor they had pegged to play opposite Ignarra was unable to do so, the film — as first envisioned — fell apart. “We were stuck with all this material,” says Guzmán. “We had shot fifty hours in her place. Our relationship had started getting juicy, hers and mine.”

Rather than chuck the project in, Guzmán and Cárdenas decided to go through the footage they’d shot to see what could become of it. Six years in the editing, Carmita (2013) is a fascinating, tough, but not unkind portrait of a once-great actress trapped in her memories, inviting comparisons with Sunset Boulevard and the seminal observational documentary Grey Gardens.

While the film was well received — even the mercurial Ignarra approved — it took a toll on the filmmakers. Says Guzmán, “It was very difficult, relationship-wise. It’s difficult to do those films with such fragile characters.”

 

Yet a fragile character was again to be at the centre of the film Guzmán and Cárdenas made while editing Carmita, 2010’s Jean Gentil. The story of an alienated Haitian gentleman in Santo Domingo seeking to find both a job and a sense of peace, the film grew out of Guzmán’s desire to learn Kreyòl, the better to communicate with the Haitians with whom she shared a country, but not much else. “I thought, ‘If I understand their language, I’m going to break this ice between us.’”

Having worked on Heading South, Guzmán asked that film’s casting director if she knew any Haitians living in Santo Domingo who could teach Kreyòl. This led her to meet Jean Remy Genty, a sensitive, middle-aged man who had come from Haiti as a boy. The two became friends, and eventually Guzmán and Cárdenas decided to make a fiction film based on Genty’s story, with Genty playing a version of himself on screen.

A slowly paced film of austere beauty and gentle pathos, with a transcendental finale, Jean Gentil, like Cochochi, premiered in Venice, and went on to great success on the film-festival circuit. But despite the film’s plaudits — the New York Times opined that “Genty holds your attention with his sober dignity” — it almost didn’t get made.

“Why don’t you have a Dominican protagonist?” Guzmán recalls being asked of potential investors in her country. “Why a Haitian?” Some government officials even tried to sabotage the funding of the film, and when it finally appeared in theatres, there were protests from Dominican nationalists. But Guzmán was, and still is, unrepentant. “We do films because we are curious, and this is what we want to reflect. I don’t care what people say.”

One of the festivals at which Jean Gentil won a prize was in Lima, Peru, where Geraldine Chaplin was head of the jury. Guzmán and Cárdenas got to know her, and when they asked if she would be in Sand Dollars, she immediately agreed. The lead character in Pancrazi’s autobiographical novel was a Frenchman in a relationship with a younger Dominican man, but while searching for an actor to fill the lead role, the filmmakers decided to change the script, and Chaplin, originally tapped for a supporting role, became one of the two leads.

Sand Dollars is set in the beautifully rugged seaside town of Las Terrenas, on the Dominican Republic’s north coast, where Guzmán’s father owns a beach house and where Jean Gentil was partly shot. “I’ve known that area for a long time, and I’ve seen it grow, and I’ve seen it change. It’s changed a lot in the last twenty years,” Guzmán says.

Once a quiet fishing village, Las Terrenas is now a haven for a wealthy European elite. There are French, German, and Russian communities there, as well as migrant workers from Latin America. Naturally, there’s a thriving sex-tourism trade. Guzmán knew of this trade, but Pancrazi’s novel gave her a whole new perspective on things. “I read the book and I recognised the atmosphere, the places he would describe, but the way he tells the story was surprising to me. He never says the word prostitution, or poverty. So you see those things in a different way.”

Having worked on a film about the same subject in the Caribbean made by a European, Guzmán was wary about adapting Sand Dollars (the first of their films she and Cárdenas didn’t write an original screenplay for) to the big screen. “The book is written from the point of view of the north looking at the south. I’m from the south, we’re doing this with money from the south, so why would I do it that way?”

The idea, therefore, was to make the film equally from the point of view of the Dominican character, Noelí. But Guzmán and Cárdenas couldn’t help but be sympathetic to the character of Anne as well. “We tried to balance. Because of my education and because of my social status it’s difficult for me,” she says candidly. “But we tried to make a balance in the film and see both worlds.”

Sand Dollars is indeed a finely wrought and tender balancing act, one that refuses to judge either woman. While the relationship is primarily a transactional one for Noelí (who has a boyfriend she passes off as her brother), she does have feelings for Anne, and gets more than just material gain out of their union. Similarly, while Anne is undoubtedly an old colonialist buying Noelí’s favours, she’s also truly, pathetically in love.

 

The success of Sand Dollars has led Guzmán and Cárdenas to team up once again with Chaplin for their next film, Beauty Kingdom. Currently in the development stage, the film will also be shot in the Dominican Republic, which the couple, with two young sons, has decided to call home for the foreseeable future. Having made two films on the trot in the Caribbean, and about to start on a third here, I wonder if Gúzman thinks of herself as that rare, relatively new thing, a Caribbean filmmaker.

“Oh yes, I am a Caribbean filmmaker,” she replies without hesitation. “I feel we all have much in common. I do feel that we’re part of something we’re building together. I don’t know if that’s so as nations, but as filmmakers — I’m starting to meet a lot of Caribbean filmmakers.” She adds, on a practical note: “The DR is not a place many people know. So it’s easier to say I’m from the Caribbean. I’m Caribbean.”

 

Sand Dollars screens at the trinidad+tobago film festival in September 2015. Visit ttfilmfestival.com for more information