Looking Into Invisible Communities: Exclusive Interview with Director Nelson Carlo de los Santos

Photo by the Locarno International Film Festival

Photo by the Locarno International Film Festival

By Guillermo Severiche

Few days before the New York premiere of the Dominican film Cocote as part of the 47th edition of New Directors / New Films presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and The Museum of Modern Art, TropicalFRONT had the chance to talk to its director Nelson Carlo de los Santos on the political and aesthetic aspects for his acclaimed film, winner of the Signs of Life Award for Best Film at the past edition of the Locarno International Film Festival.


My first impression with the film was its use of color and lighting, which I think it provides an impressive variety of textures. How did you come to the decision of working with this diverse use of textures?

Well, that has to do with my work overall. This is something I have been investigating. I come from experimental film, so when you make a fictional film it becomes more complex because there are these hegemonic ways of thinking film that say that everything has to have a reason to be there or serve the plot, for example. The diversity of textures or the formal aspects do not have anything to do with the plot. Those formal decisions are arbitrary, but still related to my investigation. This film is changing textures or formats, but it is also changing the way I am treating actors: so the whole hybridity would be in every element that conforms the mise-en-scène. 



The film has a documentary aspect—for example, in the ritual scenes—that makes it crucial the place of the camera, in other words, how to define the point of view. How did you decide where to put the camera in the spaces where you filmed bearing in mind this documentary sense?

I am inside this room and the space is so small. There is not much space between me and the people, and the camera is another body too. Las novenas (rituals) are separated in two rooms: one with the prayers and the other with las lloronas (the cryers), who are women. So, when I am with the women I am in the middle of the room. When they get possessed by a spirit they just jump and sometimes even hitting the camera. So I would like to think that the camera is a body that bangs with other bodies.


Sometimes you leave the camera filming scenes in static shots and time is managed as a way to inhabit the scene that is created. 

Yes, because for me what is important is how these shots deal with the drama, the dramatic driving in the scenes, even though I didn’t want make a dramatic film. It was my first film with actors, so I had a lot of prejudices. I was not in love with the actors in terms of observing them very closely and seeing their faces. I wanted them far and I needed them to be another element of the universe I was creating. I see them more as discursive elements rather than dramatic actors.


Regarding the writing process for the screenplay, I know that the story started as a personal memory. So when you were writing, what sort of challenges did you have to face and how did you overcome these challenges?

The story of the gardener that worked for my aunt was invisible for me. I did not know exactly what happened. So, I was working with a memory but also with something that happened for real. Thus, how do I write about something that happened to him and to many other people? This is a story that happens all the time in the Dominican Republic. How am I going to write about something that did not happen to me and I am not going to ask about it? That was the main challenge.

I decided I wanted to use documentary techniques: traveling to these places, having random conversations, meeting with people from these communities just to know what they think about these issues. Instead of fictionalizing, I was interested more in investigating how morality is used in my country, what is good and evil through conversations I had with these people. Then, I started to build this movie. That was amazing. Then, all of my challenges were overcome by people. Their stories. So, after all of this, writing was something very easy for me.


The film presents a very noticeable distinction between social classes. Do you think that there is a particular social class dominating in the Dominican Republic film industry? Was this something you had in mind when you were making this film and working with people?

It is a problem of the world. The sight of the world is very narrow. In the Dominican Republic is even worse, because this whole postcolonial or de-colonial conversation is not interesting for society. So then, how are we going to represent communities that are already invisible? It is very sad. I think now that the Dominican Republic is going through a difficult time, with a mediocre cultural production. It is more colonized than ever. After a dictatorship, we have become like a US colony, because we imitate the worst part of the US, being the most mediocre, sexist, and superficial society than ever.


Something important in your film is showing violence as an everyday thing. For someone from the North, the cultural construction of Latin America always falls into a stereotypical space: savage and violent. How did you manage the representation of violence in your film?

I am very conscious about what you mentioned. I thought that if you talk about a country like mine, politically speaking, you have to talk about violence. It is a disease we have. But then, how do you talk about it without adding to this idea of the North that helps winning film festivals? I don’t know if I am doing it right though. I try not to show violence in a pornographic way, for example, and maintaining it out of the frame. I like the idea of showing violence as something passive, something that is always there and you don’t have to see it. I hope I can represent violence without seeing it, but feeling it. I don’t know if I am doing it well, but it is a decision I have.