Rosa Iris in Stateless | NFB

Michèle Stephenson on ‘Stateless’ and the Battle of Narratives

The director discusses Hot Docs’ Special Jury Prize winner

16 mins read

It’s almost inevitable that every filmmaker interview these days begins with the same question: “What’s it like premiering a film in the middle of a global pandemic?” The answers vary, but a mixture of emotions unites them. Director Michèle Stephenson (American Promise), however, doesn’t miss a beat while connecting her powerful film Stateless to the wider social inequalities that exploded amid the coronavirus pandemic. “This question of statelessness, this issue of anti-Blackness, and the questions of migration and borders are only becoming more acute as a result of this pandemic,” observes Stephenson. “The film has much to say about what we’re going through today and the choices we make as a society around those who are most marginalized and vulnerable.”

Stateless, which won the Special Jury Prize for Canadian Features at Hot Docs this month and is produced by Jennifer Holness (Shoot the Messenger) and the NFB’s Lea Marin (Unarmed Verses), offers a compelling exploration of institutionalised racism both past and present. The film examines the history of state-sanctioned anti-Black resentment in the Dominican Republic (DR), which saw a new perversion in 2013 when the country’s Supreme Court delivered a troubling ruling that stripped the citizenship of anyone with Haitian parents retroactive to 1929. Stateless explores the complexity of the issue as Stephenson focuses on three characters—Rosa Iris, an attorney and activist; Juan Teofilo Murat, Rosa’s cousin and one of 200,000 impacted by the 2013 ruling; and Gladys Feliz, a member of the national movement group blaming Haitians for the DR’s ills. Their contemporary narratives carry echoes of the 1937 massacre in which tens of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent were slaughtered based on the darkness of their skin.

Stephenson, who is based in New York but is Canadian and of Haitian-Panamanian descent, sees obvious parallels between the situation in the DR and the climate in the USA. “Before COVID, there were actions being made out of fear and ignorance relating to those who are most vulnerable from a racialized lens,” says Stephenson. “The current federal administration [in the USA] implemented a department of de-nationalization before the pandemic and is now stopping all green card authorization as a result of COVID, so there’s an amplification of these measures. The question is how do we fight back from those tendencies?”

Stateless (Excerpt #3: Rosa runs for congress) from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.

The director suggests that change begins on individual levels working from the ground up. The interconnected storylines of Stateless illustrate this point remarkably. Rosa Iris proves to be the main eye through which the audience sees the journey as the courageous and indefatigable activist advocates for the rights of disenfranchised citizens and mounts a political campaign to inspire change within a rigged system. “When you work on nonfiction storytelling, we don’t like to use the word ‘casting,’ but that’s a big part of making sure that the story finds a connection and relevance with the audience,” says Stephenson when asked how Rosa became the central figure to the story. The director says that her connection to Hispaniola, the island that houses both the DR and Haiti, linked her with Dominicans of Haitian descent fighting for their rights to citizenship, which naturally led her to Iris.

“I felt that she was a strong representative for the cause,” explains Stephenson, noting that Iris is a relatable character who embodies a larger movement fighting for change. “She’s the type of person that is so gracious and open and immediately vulnerable in a way that makes sense for a storyteller.” Rosa’s resilience is most obvious in her efforts to assist Juan Teofilo regain his citizenship. The journey takes both the advocate and the audience through a dizzying rollercoaster of bureaucratic hurdles.

Rosa’s spirit contrasts sharply with Gladys, a delicious foil and disarming stand-in for the white supremacist movement in the DR. The character appears as warm as a kindly grandmother, but espouses an antithetical worldview as her opinions on Haitians echo Donald Trump’s sentiments on Mexicans, women, Blacks, Muslims, etc. One often has to do a double take while listening to the poison that emerges from Gladys’s mouth. “We were looking for the right person that we would feel comfortable spending time with, but also knowing that they come from a space that is of deeply ingrained hatred,” observes Stephenson. Featuring someone like Gladys who presents her views in a soft manner of speaking provides a subversive casting choice compared to the verbose angry young men one often sees in media coverage of white supremacists and right-wing populists.

Stateless (Excerpt #2 Gladys and the national movement group) from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.

Stateless affords Gladys ample screen time, but doesn’t offer the nationalist movement a platform. Rather, the convivial racist illustrates the ingrained worldview that activists like Rosa are up against while fighting for the rights of people of Haitian descent. “I grew up in a space where understanding issues of colour and racial hierarchy were embedded, even in our family dynamics, and as part of Latin America, in terms of how colonialism and post-colonialism continue to manifest themselves in this racialized way,” observes Stephenson. “The right wing nationalist movement in the DR is a microcosm of the larger white supremacist movements that exist across the world today and are gaining more power. I felt that it was somehow my duty as someone with lighter skin from that space to see how I could tell that part of the story so that we really understand what the stakes are.”

Although Gladys is open and generous in her time with Stephenson, she is simply exhausting. One especially effective sequence of Stateless sees Gladys take the film crew on a rambling road trip to find a housing project she believes to be full of Haitian illegals. When they finally locate the neighbourhood, Gladys asks residents about their origins and routes to the DR. The residents explain that they’re former migrant workers who came legally for a sugar cane plantation that has since closed. After every encounter, Gladys turns to the camera and dismisses the interviewee’s claim, noting, for example, a man’s youthful appearance as evidence to challenge his statement. This powerful sequence illustrates how the evidence for Gladys’s prejudice is a self-fulfilling deluge of alternative facts.

Stephenson acknowledges that she cannot resolve such deeply ingrained prejudice, but says that changing the mind of someone like Gladys was never her objective. “One thing I came to terms with in this film is that this [hatred] functions like a religion, like a drug, like its own circular logic,” says Stephenson. “It’s a misguided energy to even address some of these assumptions and belief systems that are being espoused. The response is not to try to convert or necessarily respond with facts, but respond with a stronger narrative.”

Stateless (Excerpt #1: Moraime) from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.

Stateless evokes the power of narratives through the story of Moraime. This fable, inspired by the novel El Masacre se pasa a pie by Freddy Prestol Castillo, weaves between the scenes with Rosa, Juan Teofilo, and Gladys, showing strikingly cinematic impressions of a young woman fleeing the 1937 massacre as Rosa narrates Moraime’s tragedy. The Moraime sequences mark striking tonal and aesthetic contrasts to the verité-style footage from the contemporary scenes. “I always had the intent, the vision, the hope to include this magical realist element to the story that was grounded in history,” explains Stephenson. “The past is always present. We carry it on our shoulders. We carry our path. We carry our ancestors. In a place like the island of Hispaniola or even all through the Caribbean, there are always these kinds of magical realist moments where one tries to make sense of one’s condition, one’s experience, and one’s life. I felt that we had to go back to the massacre of 1937 to understand the plight that Rosa and the communities face on that island. It’s part of a continuum.”

One sees the ghost of the past during the scenes in which Juan Teofilo tries to reclaim his statehood. Tense sequences involving hidden cameras and personal risks capture Juan Teofilo’s futile quest navigating bureaucratic indifference and endless piles of paperwork. As Moraime’s journey takes a dark turn, so too does Stateless as it accompanies Juan Teofilo and Rosa on a white-knuckler of a road trip through the many checkpoints across the island as they try to complete his paperwork. ”This state sanctioned de-nationalization process is another form of genocide,” observes Stephenson. “It’s another form of violence that’s part of a continuum that we have not been able to resolve. In order to resolve it, we have to look at the past and see how we are repeating it.”

Stephenson employs a number of hidden cameras during the road trip that captures an impressive range of coverage when Rosa and Juan Teofilo navigate the checkpoints. Using a camouflaged GoPro and another camera in the car, and hidden cameras on both protagonists, the sequence provides an intimate eyewitness account of state-sanctioned racism in action. “Those checkpoints are everywhere in the Dominican Republic and they’re looking for Dominicans of Haitian descent,” adds Stephenson, “and if there’s any way to pick them by the colour of their skin. It’s very intense.”

The covert cinematography one sees throughout Stateless illustrates the personal risks that subjects like Rosa and Juan Teofilo assume while bringing such stories to light. The film sees Rosa face escalating personal threats to her safety as she mounts her campaign for public office and vows to fight both racism and corruption. Facebook alone is rife with provocations.

“The production had many conversations both with Rosa and Juan Teofilo to help them understand that we were there if they needed anything, but also to understand the limits of what we could provide,” says Stephenson. “It’s an area that needs more work in the documentary community in terms of the kinds of protections that we can give. Journalists have a more established space of immediate and quick responses to their colleagues who are in danger around the world. We don’t really have an equivalent in the documentary space.”

Stephenson says that seeing Rosa confront these threats while persevering with the production inspired richer thoughts about creative approaches to documentary and the duty to protect one’s subjects. “The extracted notion of documentary filmmaking is something that I constantly grapple with from an ethical and a social practice perspective,” says Stephenson. Although Rosa now has asylum and lives in Pittsburgh, Stephenson notes that the threat to activists and everyday citizens sharing their stories is real. “There are limits to observational work creatively, but also ethically—how do we do justice when we’re collaborating with subjects who are opening their lives for us when the ultimate outcome for them is uncertain?”

However, Stephenson sees storytelling as a crucial tool for inspiring change beginning at the individual level. The risks taken by subjects like Rosa and Juan Teofilo, moreover, let films like Stateless respond with compelling narratives. “We need to create a very relentless and continuous pressure both on government and on ourselves so that we don’t fall back on our own individual behaviors. Storytelling is part of that process,” explains Stephenson. “There is a battle of narratives going on right now that somehow takes precedence over facts.”

Stateless screens as part of Hot Docs’ online festival beginning May 28 and DOXA beginning June 18.

Stateless (Trailer 02m14s) from NFB/marketing on Vimeo.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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