José María Cabral’s ‘Carpinteros,’ the First Dominican Film to Premiere at Sundance, Looks at Love Behind Bars

'Carpinteros' film still. Courtesy of Sundance

Adversity is a catalyst for creativity, and nowhere is this theory more unequivocally true than behind bars. Those that, for diverse circumstances ranging from false imprisonment to horrendous crimes, have been locked up quickly learn to adapt and become impressively adept at making their stay bearable. Companionship, as seen in Dominican director José María Cabral’s fifth feature-length drama, Carpinteros (Woodpeckers), is high on the list of priorities for all human beings, but even more so for those forced into isolation as a form of punishment.

Centered on Julian Sosa (Jean Jean), a man caught between his Haitian roots and the life he’s created on the other side of the island of Hispaniola, Carpinteros is the first Dominincan movie to ever premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. It’s an honor that represents an invaluable step forward in terms for visibility for the country’s cinema. Cabral’s newest tale gets its name from a curious sign language designed by both male and female inmates in the Najayo and La Victoria prisons in order to exchange messages through the barred windows that separate facilities for each gender. The level of complex ideas that can be expressed carpinteando is shocking and exemplifies how clever people under pressure can become when seeking to connect. This form of communication in turn takes its name from behavior typical to woodpeckers themselves.

Beyond the amusing nature of its premise, this authentically Dominican story is driven by a love triangle that rapidly turns dangerous for all parties involved. Julian wants to serve his time without running into trouble, but when Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez Perez) begins flirting with through sign language, her ex-lover and well-positioned inmate Manaury (Ramón Emilio Candelario) will get in the way of whatever happiness the two love birds can find. Shot on location and employing real prisoners, Cabral crafted a universal drama about the power of romance to overcome even the most dire of circumstances. The film is still looking for a US distributor and is embarking on the festival circuit. Miami and Guadalajara are next. Here is what the Dominican filmmaker had to say about his most internationally successful project to date.

On Discovering the Humanity Inside Violent Prisons

A friend told me that he was teaching classes inside these prisons and he had heard about inmates communicating through the barred windows. I went there and saw it with my own eyes. I discovered something very peculiar. We always think about violence, dirtiness, and darkness when it comes to prisons, but there is also a sensitive side about them. Human sensitivity can’t be removed no matter how hard they try. When I saw this I thought it was very impressive how they developed this specific signed language to communicate with each other. I took advantage of this opportunity and started writing a screenplay. I spent nine months there writing with them. It’s a love story because the most common stories there are about love.

On the Origin of the Sign Language

“I thought it would be good to show a different side of what a jail is, and that’s why Carpinteros was born.”

This sign language has existed for over 30 years, but nobody knows where it comes from. I asked anyone I could. Where it comes from per se there is no answer, nobody knows. I know that this is not the only jail that used it. It was also use in La Victoria, another similar jail. I learned a little bit of the sign language. My actors had to learned it more profoundly. I learned the basics, but I focused on the narrative aspects, but the actors had to learn it to perfection.

On Having a Protagonist Who Is of Haitian Descent

The film talks about different languages, Julian already speaks two languages and has to learn a third one in prison, which is this sign language. I wanted to play with the character’s identity. It was important for me that he felt, in a way, like he doesn’t belong anywhere. That’s what happens with a lot of people of Haitian descent that live in the Dominican Republic, they are not accepted or recognized as Dominican. Through his own efforts and the connection he makes through this sign language, he realizes that he is valuable, important, and that he can do a lot of things like learning how to play music, learning how fix the AC, or falling in love and value another person. It was important for me to see this change, and that this change came from within him even if people pushed him aside.

On the Evolution of the Dominican Film Industry from His First Feature to Carpinteros

“All the guards in the film are actual guards in those prisons. Inmates played all the extras, all the one-liners, and many of the supporting roles, because I wanted it to feel very real.”

A lot of things have changed because before there was a cinema law risks were higher. The fact that there is now a cinema law in the Dominican Republic has allowed for people to invest in other types of films and not only ones that are commercially attractive. Before, and even just after the cinema law was implemented, it was very important that the film was commercial, but little by little this has changed. This encourages investors to support other types of projects that are riskier and that can have the possibility of being screened outside of the country. This is just the beginning. There are tons of interesting upcoming projects that will create great spaces for Dominican cinema.

On Directing the First Dominican Film to Compete at Sundance

[Sundance] is the most important event in my career so far. I’m super happy. I can’t complain. The opportunity to present the film and hear feedback has been incredibly exciting.

On How Dominican Audiences Will React to the Film

I think they are really going to like it. Although this is a film that touches on universal themes and can be appreciated anywhere in the world, it’s going to be very interesting what happens in my country because I believe people are going to identify with the story, especially with the dialogue. There is something about the dialogue that only Dominicans are going to be able to appreciate. There is something about the way we Dominicans talk that’s very peculiar, even more so in jail. I hope people really enjoy the dialogue because Dominicans will notice that we did something very interesting in that regard. Hicimos un trabajito bien interesante.

On Humanizing Marginalized Characters

I was immediately attracted to these people when I met them for the first time. When I went to see their signed language through the barred windows, the men showed me photos of women they love or women they liked, and they would tell me about their plans and what they wanted to do once they got out. I was probably speaking to someone that was a criminal, but that person was also eager to love. That contradiction, that contrast, really attracted me. I thought it would be good to show a different side of what a jail is, and that’s why Carpinteros was born.

On Shooting the Film Inside Actual Prisons

The movie was shot in three jails, Najayo Hombres, Najayo Mujeres, y La Victoria. There was no process of looking for locations because this phenomenon of the sign language only happens there. It had to be filmed there or not at all. No jail stood in for another, everything that in the story takes place in Najayo was actually shot in Najayo, and everything that was supposed to take place in La Victoria was done there. It was very complicated to shoot inside these actual prisons. Besides the fact that they are overpopulated, the heat in there is horrible. Also, time goes by differently in jail because we had to respect the schedule that they run on.

On Casting Real Inmates to Participate in the Film and Putting Them Alongside Trained Actors

80 percent of the cast is made up of inmates. All the guards in the film are actual guards in those prisons. Inmates played all the extras, all the one-liners, and many of the supporting roles, because I wanted it to feel very real. That was something I discovered with time. When I started writing the ideas was to simply reenact scenes for the screenplay with the inmates, and while we were doing that I realized that many of them were very talented. I thought, “It’s impossible to find these faces outside, they are very unique.” That’s how I decided to do a casting about four months before shooting and begin working with them.

For the three lead roles, I went to a lot of plays and that’s how I found them. Then I took them to the jail for the real casting and blended them with the actors I have found there. The theater actors came in about three months in advance for them to become familiar with the language, both spoken and physical, and to understand what jail is and the symbols within it. It was about them adapting to prison life.

The setting, the jail, was already giving me what I needed, so it was about incorporating what came from the outside into this internal world, rather than the other way around. With the inmates it was different, I wouldn’t give them dialogue, but I would instead explain the scene and they would understand it clearly because every scene was based on something that really happens there. Is fiction because I recreated the scenes for the story, but not because it doesn’t really happen. Because they were still in prison and the scenes were based on events they have lived, the inmates were very natural. I allowed them to improvise.

On Making Movies about the Dominican Republic

It’s very important for me to make Dominican stories, but that doesn’t mean I won’t work elsewhere. I will never stop telling stories that take place in the Dominican Republic. I can absolutely film something else in another part of the world, but always coming back to my country. I want to always try to tell stories about the Dominican Republic.