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Stateless ★★★★



Director: Michèle Stephenson

Featuring: Rosa Iris Diendomi-Alvarez, Teofilo Murat, Gladys Feliz, Nadia Hallgren, Jaime Guerra, Pedro Arnau Bros Santana

Released: Tribeca Film Festival 2021

Imagine having your life as you know it disappear via a computer system as your citizenship status from your country of birth is retrospectively revoked to 1929, meaning that you are undocumented or otherwise known as stateless. It is a Kafkaesque nightmare of a grand scale, but this is precisely what occurred to over 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent when a new law was passed in the Dominican Republic in 2013. For years, the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic had been subject to political scrutiny. It was often a contentious category within political manifestos on the pretext of controlling migration from Haiti to the Dominican Republic.  However, this action has been revealed historically to be akin to a form of ethnic cleansing. It is precisely this racial element which is fully explored in the documentary Stateless.

Stateless follows the journey of lawyer Rosa Iris as a tireless advocate for those undocumented citizens. Rosa works with many Dominican locals to obtain their birth certificates and assert their right to stay. She confidently tells a government officer that they should not be discriminating against their fellow Dominican compatriots. This seems to be a challenging exercise as the film tracks Rosa’s efforts which intensify across the country as an activist for change and cross the political threshold to her peril. The subtle direction from Michèle Stephenson provides that immersion into the devastation caused to the lives of those families suddenly impacted by this new law; examples include men who possess Dominican forms of identification but frustratingly find themselves unable to attend school since 2013 because of such legal change creating that inequity of opportunities.

The film interweaves scenes of Rosa’s social justice campaigning with footage of the impacted locals alongside the scenes of those on the opposing sides.  The opposing viewpoints presented by those within the Dominican Nationalist Party display a sentiment of distrust as they analyse the border controls between Haiti and the Dominican Republic and reveal the degree of fear they possess towards the ‘other’, being the Haitians.  Whilst reasons of crime prevention are continuously cited for such prejudices towards the Haitians. The film powerfully exposes the correlation between such beliefs and an anti-black narrative. Stateless strives to provide that balanced perspective, with edits of President Danilo Medina’s rhetoric to tighten the borders. Still, the film, fortunately, does not shirk away from portraying the extent of the issue at hand concerning the Dominicans facing discrimination beyond their control.

Stateless also follows the tale of Juan, as Rosa embarks on a political campaign and travels to Haiti.  The film’s tracking shots provide that sense of the beauty of the surrounding areas amongst the racially tense climate impacting Juan’s ability to see his family in the Dominican Republic.  Heart-breaking scenes reveal that this case is personal for Rosa and exposes the country’s entrenched levels of racism.

Despite political broadcasts within the documentary remarking that the Dominican Republic could not be a racist country since its residents consist of being a large percentage of black people and mixed-race people of black origin, Stateless demonstrates that Rosa is fighting against systemic racism.  It is an emotional journey that may prove to be an uncomfortable watch for some as the layers of discrimination are unpeeled over the course of the film.

Stephenson’s decision to intersperse the politically harrowing events with storytelling and surreal imagery is bold and creates that historical but magical perspective to the film. Such images focus on the water, and the land as the tale of the 1937 genocide of thousands of Haitians within the Dominican Republic is narrated like a bedtime story. The film’s focus on a young girl provides further insight into the troubled past between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Stateless is a powerful, gripping film highlighting the embedded Haitian-Dominican Republic conflict.  The film effectively explores how one person raised awareness of the struggles and ultimately placed herself within a dangerous predicament. Stateless will hopefully also raise that awareness of the fight for the rights of these citizens and how assistance can be provided on a global scale.

Following the making of Stateless, there has been a change in the political regime in the Dominican Republic as of August 2020.  There is now more hope for progressive change towards statelessness, human rights and new opportunities. Fortunately, organisations such as the European Network on Statelessness and documentaries such as Stateless highlight the rights of those affected and the need for international support.  This is especially the case as these undocumented groups have been particularly vulnerable whilst pandemic related restrictions are still in force.

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