The closer one gets to the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the more dubious it becomes. The two nations’ continuous territorial struggle stems from their contrasting colonial and revolutionary experiences. No matter their proximity or the links between them, there is an inherent need for power structures in the Dominican Republic to keep any Haitian influence at bay. A follow-up to her feature Stateless, Michèle Stephenson’s new documentary short Elena is an intimate and engrossing portrait of how the specters of historical traumas haunt Dominicans of Haitian heritage, who are relegated to the fringes of social acceptance. Though neither film deals directly with dictator Rafael Trujillo’s 1937 massacre of tens of thousands of people of Haitian descent, both focus on the ways that event still echoes through contemporary institutionalized racism — particularly the Dominican Republic’s 2013 Supreme Court ruling which revoked the citizenship of anyone with Haitian parents.
Elena, the film’s young namesake, embodies many of the struggles of those left adrift by a state that openly disregards them. She has always seen herself as Dominican, but that is of little consequence to those who spout xenophobic remarks on the street, their sudden switch in attitude apparent as soon as she reveals her ancestry. These sequences are raw and upsetting, but Stephenson avoids relying on them for pathos. For the director, what drives the narrative is Elena’s point of view, both psychologically and physically. The opening scene shows Haitian laborers overcrowding a bus, looking for work in the Dominican fields. As bodies fill the frame, Elena relates her childhood memories of the sugarcane plantations in voiceover. Paying no mind to the people who look down on that way of life, to her these are joyful recollections, formative assertions of her identity.
The visual and aural textures of Elena’s rural upbringing are vividly represented — cups fill with steamy café chorreado, improvised fans blow at her forehead, a brush combs her hair. In 1937, the armed forces allegedly chose victims for execution based on racial profiling. But Elena and the film aren’t afraid of upholding the qualities traditionally disparaged as inferior by those in power. Elena is a proud celebration that seeks to open the way for more stories like it.
Elena is available to stream via the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival June 4-6.
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