Husband and wife, Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán, are at the forefront of the film industry in the Dominican Republic. Their critically acclaimed 2014 feature Sand Dollars garnered the directors some of the best reviews of their burgeoning careers. Set in a dreamy and sun-kissed beach, the film told the story of a tender romance between an older French tourist and a young Dominican girl. Of note was the fact that it starred Charlie Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine — a coup for any filmmaker around the globe. Sand Dollars bowed at the Toronto Film Festival and was eventually submitted by the Caribbean country as its Oscar submission.
But with a filmography that also includes documentaries on a Cuban actress exiled in Mexico (Carmita), two young indigenous boys in Mexico (Cochochi), as well as a feature centered on a Haitian man in Santo Domingo (Jean Gentil), Cárdenas and Guzmán’s careers are clearly ones to watch. Their upcoming feature, Beauty Kingdom, has just been named a 2017 TFI Latin America Fund Grantee. Much like their earlier endeavors, the project seeks to unearth the admittedly short film history of the D.R.. It’s inspired by the work and life of famed Dominican filmmaker Jean-Louis Jorge, who has since his death in 2000 become an influential figure in the country’s contemporary cinema.
Ahead of the Tribeca Film Festival where Cárdenas and Guzmán will be showing their most recent film, Sambá, Remezcla called up the happily married couple to talk about why it’s a good time to be making films in the D.R., why the story of Beauty Kingdom is so important at this time, and why they both think they’ve just been making the same film over and over again. Check out the conversation below.
I wanted first to talk about working together. You’ve been at it for over a decade now. What’s the process like?
Laura: Each time it’s kind of different. Each project has its own thing. We try to work on one computer and try to write. We’re a couple so we live together and we’re working on several projects at the same time, and talking about them all the time. One of us sits down and writes, and the other one reads what Israel, for example, wrote.
Israel: It depends on the project and we don’t really think about each will do. We just start working and during the process we find what it is we do best.
Laura: In the case of Sand Dollars it was an adaptation from a book, so it was a whole different process from what we’re doing now in Beauty and Kingdom which has a lot of research — a lot of archive work and some interviews with the local film community. I am very close to the film community since I’m Dominican and my parents belonged to that community, so I’ve been doing most of the research for this film. But we’ve been sharing the screenwriting. We do it together.
Tell me about Beauty Kingdom.
Laura: It all started with me wanting to do a film or do research on the life and work of a Dominican filmmaker called Jean-Louis Jorge, who died before the “good times” in Dominican Republic cinema. He couldn’t actually make movies in the DR — the movies he made were from his time as a student in the U.S. and then when he went to live in France in the late 70s and early 80s. He is an icon in Dominican cinema and I’ve been wanting to explore his work. We’re not trying to do a documentary or a biopic but instead, in a way, explore his soul, his spirit. And try to make a film that’s like an homage to him. This is how we’ve come to the three main characters of this feature who are three great friends who reunite in the Dominican Republic to make a film that is inspired by one of his scripts, let’s say.
What strikes me about you guys’ filmography is how varied it is. You have Sambá, a boxing movie playing at Tribeca, Sand Dollars was this same-sex romance drama, Carmita was a documentary about an actress. Is that variety intentional?
Laura: I actually think they’re all the same! It’s the same story over and over. They all depend on the people we meet and the people we want to talk about. So far, talking about Carmita and Sand Dollars, I think they have some similarities. Maybe the most different one is Cochochi, about the indigenous boys in Mexico. We’re always reflecting on what’s surrounding us.
Israel: But we do try to make different films, always. I mean, it’s hard to reach that. It’s not easy. I do think we are doing the same film over and over because to do completely different films every time is hard. But we are trying!
Can you talk a bit about seeking funding for this film?
Israel: Well, here in the Dominican Republic we’re having a really good moment. Not only because there is a growing film industry and plenty of tax incentives to make films, but also now we’re co-producing with Mexico and Argentina. I mean, in terms of funding, I think it is a very particular moment for Latin America. Funding is no longer the main obstacle for making a film…
Laura: It’s still hard! You make it sound so easy.
Israel: But I think compared to other countries, we’re in good times. So most of the film will be funded by Dominican funds and some of it comes from Mexico and Argentina.
Laura: We already have a natural co-production relationship there since Israel is Mexican and I’m Dominican. So we always try to make our films with both nationalities. And then the co-production with Argentina has been happening since Carmita and Sand Dollars. We’ve been working with Rei Cine, which is a young set of producers who are doing a great job in following and giving support to young filmmakers who they relate to.
Seeing as you’re so connected and interested in the film industry of the D.R., does it feel right now as if it’s those “good times” you were talking about just now? It is a good time to be working in film in the D.R.?
Israel: Well, we live in the Dominican Republic so that’s the context that we’re in. But what’s happening is not just here in the D.R. — it’s happening everywhere in Latin America where cinema is growing. In the case of the Dominican Republic, the cinema history is too short. It’s very young. So people here are starting to create films without knowing much about the past, not knowing anything about who made it possible. For a country to have a love of cinema there must be a fascination for film. And there were a lot of people before us who worked really hard on this. Unfortunately, as Laura said, they didn’t make that many films.
Laura: They didn’t have the chance to.
Israel: So that’s part of this project and why we think it’s important. But also the film portrays other things about filmmaking. I feel that many times we are worried about the final result of a film without thinking too much or even being aware of the process. The film tries to portray the process and how we can enjoy, or at least to be aware, that the most important thing is not the film itself but the work and the community. Because cinema is not only one guy doing a film — it’s a bunch of people coming together. I think that’s a very important thing to portray now for the future. To see how this develops.
The TFI Latin America Fund supports innovative film and video artists living and working in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America whose works reflect their diverse cultures in the scripted, documentary or mixed media form. Grants are given to projects that are in production or post-production.