“I don’t dance,” she said. “My parents were partiers and liked to dance a lot so I acted like a cop and judged them and said, ‘Don’t dance so much!’ But I know I carry the beat inside me.”
Dominican writer-director Laura Amelia Guzmán grew up in a family of filmmakers, a rare craft on an island whose film industry mostly consisted of American or European productions looking for tropical locations, “Or when anyone wanted to make a movie about Cuba but they couldn’t shoot it in Cuba, they would come here,” she says. Her parents are both art directors and helped make Guzman and husband Israel Cárdenas’s most recent film Dólares de arena (Sand Dollars) a reality.
The film was shot in her family’s home in the coastal town of Las Terrenas, “So they’ve been working on the production design of that house for a long time,” she jokingly notes. Located in the peninsula of Samaná on the northeastern coast of the Dominican Republic, Las Terrenas is home to an eclectic mix of both Dominicans and Europeans. Many of the latter are transplants who now consider themselves part of the culture and lore of the island.
“This country lives off of tourism. So stories like Noeli’s are more frequent. Men or women who want to immigrate and do it via tourists, falling in love or feigning a love affair.”
The contrast between moneyed Europeans and everyday Dominicans is ripe material for a good story, and Guzmán found just that in the book Les dollars des sables by French author Jean-Noël Pancrazi. It’s a largely autobiographical account about a middle-aged French man who falls for a younger local man. “When I read the book, I was suddenly rooting for the foreigner more than the local,” recalls Guzmán, “Even though I’m Dominican and know that town and the people very well. But I felt closer to the person who writes and reads and travels, and so that’s why it got my attention.” Guzmán and Cárdenas optioned the rights to the novel and got to work.
In Dólares de arena, young Noeli (Yanet Mojica) is a survivor. Her mother left for Barcelona long ago and Noeli has not heard from her in years. To make a living, Noeli provides companionship to older men and women on the island. Anne (Geraldine Chaplin), a French woman on permanent vacation, is smitten with Noeli; Anne gives her gifts and showers her with affection. Still, Noeli is not so much interested in their romance as she is the possibility of getting a passport and traveling with Anne to Paris.
“There are two worlds here in the Dominican Republic; we’ve told stories about people on the fringes, who are in difficult situations, so now we want to make a movie about frivolity.”
Though Pancrazi’s novel centered around two men, Guzmán and Cárdenas decided to change the genders of the characters when they found in Geraldine Chaplin a champion of their work and an enthusiastic collaborator. Chaplin, the daughter of one of cinema’s founding fathers and one of the more underappreciated actresses on this side of the Atlantic, was a juror at the 2011 Lima Film Festival where Guzmán’s and Cárdenas’ earlier film Jean Gentil screened. “They did an interview and she spoke about how much she liked the film and that she couldn’t get it out of her head,” says Guzmán, “That reached my ears and so we wrote to her to see if she wanted to play a part in the new movie.”
Though we’re following a lesbian couple, the themes of the film center more on immigration, class, and economics. The film is a powerful story about the kinds of dependencies that develop when there is a big population of foreigners who have more resources, and access to a world that will largely be unreachable to most ordinary Dominicans. “This country lives off of tourism,” Guzmán emphasizes, “So stories like Noeli’s are more and more frequent every day, not necessarily between two women or two men, but stories of men or women who want to immigrate and do it via tourists, falling in love or feigning a love affair.” Guzmán attributes the financial hardship that Dominicans experience and the subsequent dependency economy that it creates in an inadequate public education system. “Many kids don’t attend school until graduation,” she says, “And that’s usually the case for someone who lives in a town, as does Noeli, and because there is no education there is no motivation to do anything more than provide a service.”
“I want to make a movie that changes things up: a movie about laughs but without being a comedy.”
Guzmán and Cárdenas have been married for 10 years, during which time they’ve made four films and raised two children together. They’ve recently completed the script for their next project, one they plan to shoot in the Dominican Republic as part of the growing wave of national cinema being stimulated by production incentives. She reports that this one will be lighter in tone. “We’ve made a lot of movies that deal with social issues,” says Guzmán, “And there are two worlds here in the Dominican Republic; we’ve told stories about people on the fringes, who are in difficult situations, so now we want to make a movie about frivolity.”
Because Latin American cinema as a genre is so identified with social issue stories, I ask Guzmán if she’s at all concerned their next film will provoke some backlash by their stepping away from that style. “Oh yes, let’s step away!” she says, with some relief. “It’s like it’s always the same, no? And it’s the rhythm as well; I’ve thought that myself about slow movies. I want to make a movie that changes things up: a movie about laughs but without being a comedy.”
Dolares de arena opens in theaters November 6 and is available on VOD and DVD November 24, 2015.