This Director Made a Documentary About a 12-Year-Old Dominican Kid Who Dreams of Reggaetón Stardom

Amidst the dystopian sci-fis and brooding dramas that made up the Latin American lineup at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, there was a bright and shiny ray of light in the form of a deceptively simple documentary entitled Jeffrey. Helmed by the half-Venezuelan, half-Dominican actress-turned-director Yanillys Perez, the doc centers on an adorable 12-year-old boy who washes windshields on the chaotic and crowded streets of Santo Domingo. It’s his unending curiosity and friendly magnetism that bring life to the sleek visuals of the movie.

At the doc’s start, he explains that his birth certificate lists his name as Joselito de la Cruz but he prefers people call him Jeffrey. “I like the name Jeffrey because it sounds American and anything American sounds good around here.” Despite being a typical kid who runs around, dances, and plays with his friends, Jeffrey also deeply examines his surroundings and sometimes seems to speak in poetic verse. In an especially picturesque scene, he climbs a humongous tree at dusk and in voiceover pronounces that, “When I am sad I like to go to this tree, but only before it gets dark because after 7 p.m. this tree starts walking.” It’s this wild imagination that led Perez to choose Jeffrey for the doc, along with his ambition of reaching stardom as a reggaetón singer.

After the film’s world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, we caught up with the director to talk about going from acting in Olivier Assayas’ Carlos miniseries to directing her first feature, how she found Jeffrey, and that time she got threatened with a machete during the shoot.

On Going From Acting to Directing

I started as an actress, and I was writing. I thought I was writing for me to act [in] and to give it to someone [else to direct it]. I wrote this short film, then I found a producer and he said: “Do it! Just try.” And I tried [directing], then I loved it. I really loved it because it’s another way to express yourself. And it’s very powerful because you don’t have to wait for someone to choose you. You just choose yourself and what you want to say and how you want to say it. It’s beautiful. So, I decided to continue doing shorts and that could be my [film] school. I also learned a lot from seeing other people working. For example, when I was in Carlos I observed a lot how Olivier [Assayas] works. That allowed me to see how a set works.

On Why She Picked Jeffrey For the Film

I knew I wanted to do a film about a kid who works on the street — it could have been a girl or a boy — but I wanted it to be a kid who works on the street and has a dream. So I reached out to those kids in Santo Domingo. One of those kids was Jeffrey. I kept coming back to him because he was so charismatic. He was open and so sure of himself. It still surprises me to this day, the things he says. He’s a kid but he’s so mature. He just speaks so deeply and that’s what he’s really like. So, I talked to him and he told me where he lives and I went to his place. Then he told me about this tree. He said, “You see that tree?” And I said, “Oh yeah, it’s nice. It’s really big and beautiful.” He told me, “I come here often and that tree walks at night.” When he told me that, it’s when I knew. “That is the kid.” He just had such a big imagination. Then he also told me that he sings. He said he did reggaetón and dembow. I didn’t believe him at the beginning. So I told him to show me. So he started doing it and his brother Junior started dancing. I took out my phone to film and see if he changed and he didn’t. He didn’t even look at the camera. So I told him, “What you just did, you need to keep doing that. Don’t look at the camera.” And he said, “Yeah, I know. I watch telenovelas.”

On Jeffrey Slowly Turning Into a Director

I told him that we are going to do a documentary. “This is like a telenovela but you don’t do anything that you wouldn’t do normally. It’s like now: you show me the tree, you show me your house, you show me how you dance and I am filming but you don’t look at the camera.” He learns really quick and he doesn’t like you to explain things too much. I didn’t have to give him direction. It was easy. I would arrive and whatever he was doing… For example, he was with the kids one day behind his house, like playing and dancing. I wanted to film that. So I turned the camera on and he just continued. Then he was the one telling the kids, “Don’t look at the camera!” He was directing them.

On Picking a Visual Style That Created a Dreamlike World

I filmed him for three years and I had a different DP every year. I also did some of the camera myself. I am a perfectionist, so I tried to make sure you couldn’t see much of a difference between the different cameras. Whenever I had a new DP, I showed them what we had already done and told them it would all be hand held. We always had two cameras. If I really needed something then I would ask them [the kids] to do it again but I tried not to do that. That’s why I had two cameras. We moved around since it was a small camera. It was a 5D. For the aerial shots, we did that the last year. I did those shots because I wanted to portray the real life of the kids and their family, but I wanted people to dream with me. That’s the magic of cinema. I wanted people to travel to the inside of Jeffrey’s life. The aerial shots allow us to be like a bird and see this family’s life that you normally would never see.

On How Being Both Venezuelan and Dominican Informs Her Filmmaking

I could film anywhere and I will always have that thing; I am on the inside and the outside. I have gone back and forth between different countries since I was 14. When you change countries and you know different cultures, you get to be more understanding and are more open to new things. When you stay and live in just one place, you get used to what you see and all the barriers that society teaches you. Maybe if I had lived in the Dominican Republic my whole life, I would have believed that the people working on the street are bad people who are robbers or are going to mug me. I maybe would have had all those prejudices in my mind. I think, because I’ve lived in different places, I understand where they come from.

On Getting Threatened With a Machete

One time when I was filming, there was a guy outside who was drunk or maybe something else. Who knows? The guy turned to me and my cameraman and said, “Get that camera away from me!” He thought I was filming him. I said, “No, I’m filming the kid and his family. You see over there?” And he kept saying, “No!” He became very violent and he pulled out a machete. Then, I went cold. I turned every color possible. I told the other cameraman to leave and go where everyone else was. I thought because I am a woman, I could use that. And I just said to him, “No, please. We are here making a documentary. Do you know what a documentary is?” He just kept saying, “I don’t want to talk to you! Put that camera away!” I think he was on drugs or something. That was really difficult. That was the worst moment [of filming]. So we had to leave. We started running and then it just started raining. The other cameraman had turned his camera off. When I was talking to the guy, because I was so nervous, I didn’t even turn mine off. When I finally got away and it started raining, I just turned my camera towards the kids. You see that [scene] in the movie, the kids running while it’s raining. If I wanted a longer shot of that, I couldn’t have it. It just happened like that.