Dominican Republic: Using film to tell the story of Dominicans of Haitian descent

By Sofia Olins

When I first met Rosa Iris, she was completing her law degree while raising her 6-year-old son alone. This, in the compromised conditions of a bateye (a town of corrugated shacks with no water and electricity), is no easy task.

Surrounded by sugar cane, we waited for her to arrive so we could film the workers in the fields. She greeted us with warmth and kindness. Straight away I knew she would be a great person to feature in our film Our Lives In Transit. 

Jump forward a few months and we had begun shooting our film, Our Lives In Transit. Our previous documentary, about MRG’s first and ground-breaking street theatre project in the Dominican Republic (DR), focused on the programme as a whole. This time, however, we wanted to have a person at the centre of this story – and I knew, almost from the moment we were introduced, that that person should be Rosa. A film about her fight for the rights of her community and all others who were suffering the same discrimination.

MRG has a long history working with Dominicans of Haitian descent in the DR, whose lives continue to be shaped by racism to this day. Numbering up to a million people, many of whom have been resident in the country for generations, they are still confronted by shocking levels of inequality. This includes hundreds of thousands of community members with valid claims to citizenship who are effectively stateless.

But to truly capture the reality she and others faced, we had to film with Rosa over longer periods. We found a way to do this over the course of a year with a local crew while I directed from London via Skype, and with detailed story boards. With MRG’s enthusiastic support, we were able to successfully complete the film under these unusual conditions.

Rosa had told me about how, before her Haitian father had died, she had got to know him better in his later years. We therefore decided that the film could be narrated by her, in the form of a letter, to her father. Over the year, the seasons would mark her mission: to challenge the government’s discriminatory policies and, in doing so, defend his name.

This narrative gave us, the audience, the opportunity to connect personally with Rosa, and through her with thousands of others facing the same plight. The benefit of this approach – film making driven directly by the thoughts and actions of the participants – is that their story can be told with an urgency that delivers greater empathy and understanding to encourage change, which is the ultimate aim of all the documentaries MRG has helped produce.

Our Lives in Transit was screened for UN policy-makers in Europe and at other events in Barcelona, London, Madrid and Asturias, as well as at a high-profile advocacy event in Washington, DC. It also had a further 19 extra screenings at film festivals and events in Canada, the United States, Puerto Rico, Chile and South Africa, not to mention in DR itself, attracting tens of thousands of viewers in the process. This, and an extended advocacy campaign around the film, led to great visibility around the issue of statelessness in the DR and other countries. Not only were governments engaged and challenged, but a rarely told story affecting hundreds of thousands of people was shared with the wider world – an important step towards improved understanding.

Photo: Dominican Republic Street Theatre programme