‘Carpinteros’ brings Dominican cinema to the Berkshires

Photo courtesy of IMDb.
Jean Jean and Judith Rodriguez Perez play the roles of Julián and Yanelly, two inmates who fall in love in a Dominican prison.

On April 2, 16 and 23, Images held its first-ever Latin American and Caribbean Film Festival, and the results were outstanding. The theme of the festival, “Race, Gender and Political Dissent: Latin American and Caribbean Film Today,” was chosen to stimulate discussion about the region both on campus and in the Berkshire community. Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish Walfrido Dorta, who organized the festival, explained, “It is important to show the plurality of Latin American and Caribbean societies in times where the media tends to give us negative, stereotypical images of these countries.”

The movies, all chosen by Dorta and Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish Mirta Suquet, featured the works of young directors from Cuba, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. “These movies are representations of struggle and resistance in societies that are facing extreme hardships,” Dorta said.

Santa y Andrés, directed by Carlos Lechuga, and La Soledad (The Solitude), directed by Jorge Thielen Armand, were the first two films featured. The last movie of the festival was Carpinteros, or “Woodpeckers” in English. Released in 2017 and directed by José Maria Cabral, this Dominican movie has already received many awards and was selected for the 2017 Sundance Festival. A tale of love in the midst of hell, this movie is extremely touching, thrilling at times and a cutting critique of the penal system.

The story takes place in the Dominican Republic’s Najayo prison, where men and women who are separated find new ways of communicating. A complicated system of body signals, mimicking those of woodpeckers, allows them to express their feelings. Julián, a young inmate, kindles a romance from afar with another inmate while struggling to hide it from dozens of guards and other prisoners. On a broader scale, this movie also depicts an unjust prison system – where most inmates are black – and exposes the violence that they face.

The film begins with the arrival of Julián in the prison, with lengthy scenes depicting the humiliating experience of having his possessions taken and his hair shaved while being forced to obey the orders of screaming guards. The peak of this humiliation comes when one guard makes him bend over to ensure that he is not hiding anything in his buttocks.

As Julián begins to discover the horrors of prison, he realizes that the strongest dominate. The powerful decide who has the chance to sleep on a real bed and who gets to have a full portion of food. Despite initially feeling lost, Julián soon begins to associate with a powerful inmate, Manaury, who promises to protect him in exchange for favors. When Manaury gets moved to another prison, he asks Julián to communicate with his girlfriend Yanelly for him. Climbing up the window overlooking the women’s prison, Julián begins communicating with Yanelly through a system of hand signals.

A relationship is soon forged between Julián and Yanelly, at first solely through non-verbal communication, which adds a poetic layer to the movie. The two lovers will do everything to meet in person, including signing up for music sessions in order to be able to perform together at the annual prison show. The film depicts the many complicated ways in which they manage to communicate via letters, with complicated arrangements that give them reasons to live. This beautiful relationship comes as a breath of fresh air in the sinister prison atmosphere.

The movie takes a dark turn, however, when Manaury becomes aware of this love story, making it his mission to separate the two lovers. After trying to implicate Julián in a drug deal, his plan backfires, and he ends up with Julián in an even worse prison camp. Yanelly, meanwhile, is set free after completing her sentence. She comes to visit Julián, ultimately finding herself in the midst of a violent prison revolt. The tragic ending of the movie is suddenly interrupted by Yanelly; looking straight at the camera, she uses her hand language as a sign of strength and determination to keep living.

Inspired by real life events and shot on the actual location of the Najayo prison, Carpinteros is an unparalleled depiction of the violence of prison and the terrible conditions of life for inmates in the Dominican Republic. And as for the American viewer, one unfortunately cannot help but be reminded of our own prison-industrial complex.

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