Death by a Thousand Cuts, which had its world premiere at Hot Docs, originated with an idea co-director Jake Kheel developed when he was working on a master’s thesis at Cornell University.
“I live and work in the Dominican Republic (D.R.),” says Kheel during an interview at the festival. He is drawn to the warmth of the people, and “from an environmental perspective, it is one of the most bio-diverse locales in the Caribbean. It has an incredible range of habitats, and it’s incredibly under risk.”
Kheel works as Vice President of Sustainability for Grupo Puntacana, developing programmes that have drawn international attention and won numerous awards. Among many initiatives and activities, he has worked to revive dying coral reefs.
Years ago, Kheel researched deforestation along the Dominican-Haitian border, and gradually came up with the idea of a doc about the area, one that links environmental devastation to social disaster. The project evolved into a story about how Haitians cross the border from their deforested country into the D.R. to cut wood that gets burnt into charcoal, the only fuel the Haitian poor can afford.
To make the film, Kheel approached Montreal-born, US-based producer Ben Selkow and Columbian-born director Juan Mejia Botero. Selkow is a versatile, prolific filmmaker who has worked in both documentary and fiction. His projects have appeared on HBO, CNN, the Discovery Channel, and many other outlets. In 2014, Selkow was a producer-director for CNN’s hugely entertaining Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. He also collaborated on Steven Spielberg and Danny Forster’s Rising: Rebuilding Ground Zero.
Mejia Botero, who signed to co-direct Thousand Cuts, is an activist filmmaker who has made features and short docs in many countries, often dealing with grassroots issues. For instance, his Uprooted depicts an Afro-Colombian family that lost its home. Among other degrees, Mejia Botero has a BA in anthropology from Swarthmore College.
From its inception, the trio behind Death by A Thousand Cuts wanted to make a revealing, consciousness-raising film that could be used for outreach. But they also wanted it to have narrative drive and aesthetic appeal.
For Selkow, “The key was to take this larger crisis issue and make it personal. Going from personal to polemic is always the right trajectory for creating strong narrative documentaries. And the word we used all along was ‘thriller.’ How do we take the spectre of deforestation, the brewing tensions between two countries and animate that in a personal accessible narrative?”
The doc got closer to thriller, Kheel recalls, “after we finished our first scouting mission in the D.R. border with Haiti.” A park ranger called Eligio Eloy Vargas, nicknamed Melaneo, got chopped to pieces in a forest on the border, ostensibly by a Haitian, Pablo Tipal, who was illegally cutting wood for charcoal.
The story of the murder raises mysteries. What was the truth about Melaneo? Did Pablo Tipal, now in hiding, really kill him? “We realised immediately that things are not exactly as they seem,” recalls Mejia Botero. “Perfect for a thriller. From the murder of Melanio on, we started discovering new aspects to things.”
As for the aesthetics of the film, Mejia Botero explains, “We worked with an amazing cinematographer,” Juan Carlos Castañeda. “The idea was to adapt the cinematography to a more narrative type of vibe. Even in the framing of the interviews, we kept an aesthetic more towards a thriller.” For the film’s stunning overhead shots of the border area, reminders that despite the animosity between the D.R and Haiti, they are actually deeply inter-connected, the filmmakers carried drones into the mountains on mule-back.
During production of the film the D.R. passed its now infamous immigration laws, which aimed at mass deportation of Haitian immigrants. The murder story, says Selkow, “perfectly crystallizes all the complexities of the social and environmental situation on the island of Hispaniola. It’s not this black and white thing. The point of the film is that it’s a hybrid; it’s a Creole, or whatever you want to call it.”
Kheel wants the government to be acutely aware of “the issues on the border, the issues of inequality, of environmental degradation, of tension building between these two countries. There is a real risk for conflict. We want this film to be seen by the politician class, by journalists, by folks who work on the border.”
The reality of that border continues Kheel, is that “there is no wall, there is no border crossing. It is basically a mountain range that people walk across day and night. At one point, we crossed the border with a mule train carrying our equipment. And the only way you would know you are in Haiti is that your cell phone carrier changed, and the houses started to look a little different. The only formal border crossings are for big trucks and cars. It’s basically an open border.”
Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8. Visit www.hotdocs.ca for more information.