Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas are a husband and wife directorial team. Guzmán is Dominican, and initially worked as a cinematographer before turning to directing; Cárdenas is Mexican. They directed their first film together in 2007— Cochochi premiered at Jeonju; Buenos Aires, where it won a Special Mention; Gramado, where it won Best Film; Miami, where it won the Grand Jury Prize; Toronto, where it won the Discovery Award; Toulouse, where it won the Grand Prix; and Gijón, where it won the FIPRESCI Prize. Their latest work, Sand Dollars, was the Dominican Republic's official submission to the 88th Academy Awards.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas discuss the patriarchal economies of sex tourism, new readings of gender, working with a professional actress for the first time, and their next project.
FILMATIQUE: Anne is presented as a denizen of the affluent, intellectual, multilingual jet-set crowd who seems to float from place to place in a glamour and style that belies her own feelings of restlessness, her deep lack of purpose. What inspired your portrayal of this character?
GUZMÁN & CÁRDENAS: The film is inspired by the novel Sand Dollars, by French writer Jean-Noël Pancrazi, who describes his own experiences in Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic— the same place where we shot the film. I have personally watched Las Terrenas grow from a small fishing town into a tourist destination.
What captured our attention is how Anne's character, a woman with special intellectual capacities, is able to see things I couldn't see in my own country even though I have visited this town all my life. What I would have seen as prostitution back then, the author of the book saw as an opportunity for love and company.
FLMTQ: Las Terrenas is presented as a blithe, lazy atmosphere— the gauzy beaches, warm afternoons— a timeless place where memory and desire reside. Because it is so hyper-aestheticized, La Terrenas appears to the audience as if through the eyes of a tourist. How did you strive to capture the sensuality of this environment? Did you consciously choose to depict it as if through Anne's eyes?
G&C: We tried not to hyper-aestheticize the dreamy Caribbean backdrop and verdant tourist haven of Las Terrenas. The book has plenty of wonderful descriptions of the place, leaving aside the social conditions. We took some of the atmospheric descriptions and the way of looking at this place. A look of love.
Technically, we just tried not to show too much. We focused on the point of view of both Anne and Noelí.
FLMTQ: Sand Dollars is loosely adapted from Jean-Noel Pancrazi's novel Les Dollars des Sables. Could you reflect on the process of adapting a film from source material for the first time? What were the challenges? The advantages?
G&C: So far, with our previous two features, we had written our scripts based on real people and real places we knew very well. Jean-Noël Pancrazi wrote his novel in a similar way from his own experience in a town we both loved, but in a way that masterfully revealed background information with lightness and precision, through internal monologues.
The challenge was not to illustrate the book, but to use it more as a starting point. What point of view would we see the film from? The foreigner's, like in the book? Or would we want to explore these North-South relationships we have seen so many times, but in another way?
Either way, the spirit of the book was to be respected. The characters nonetheless gave their own life to the story.
FLMTQ: The novel and script were both originally written to be about two men. How did the story evolve to include two women instead, and what changes, if any, were necessary to facilitate that shift?
G&C: Including two women instead of two men was not a premeditated action, but an organic one.
While we where searching for the cast— not only for the two male protagonists, but the supporting cast of other interesting characters that completed their world— we came upon Geraldine Chaplin who was willing to play an old Italian woman that would take Noelí back to Italy with her. When we met Geraldine and confirmed how much she loved the project, we changed the script and the main character's sex to female so that she could be the protagonist.
From there we had to re-write the script, the most important change being that now the main point of view was through a woman's eyes. Likewise, in choosing to revert the sex of the main characters, Sand Dollars represents a double transgression. If the sanky (prostitute) represents the failure of the national economic model, then the staging of a lesbian relationship calls for a new reading of gender— the image of a sexualized Caribbean woman that has always only been available for the hegemonic patriarch is, thus, dismantled.
Noelí, like the sanky, negotiates her sexuality with Anne, the French-American tourist. But Noeli's agency is ultimately jeopardized by her boyfriend, who also expects to benefit from this transaction in which everyone plays their part.
FLMTQ: There are many framing devices available to deconstruct Anne and Noelí's story— neo-colonialism and its history of white fascination with black bodies; the underground of sex tourism as a contemporary equivalent. However, the way you have presented Anne and Noelí's relationship does not demonstrate the burden of these tropes. Anne and Noelí are simply humans, whose hearts belong, unrequited, to another— Anne's heart desperately and completely to Noelí, and Noelí's to Yeremi, who we feel will never truly love her— and while this is perhaps a source of bonding or mutual understanding between the two women, we also feel as if Noelí does care for the older woman.
How instrumental do you believe the impossibility of love is to its survival?
G&C: The film takes in all of these contributing elements to create the atmosphere of an intimate world that belongs to Anne and Noelí— the clashing, stirring, unrequited, impossible love that is held together by Anne's financial support. Noelí is a young Dominican woman who, even with her chosen lifestyle, remains somewhat innocent and naïve, dreaming of immigrating to Europe where she can find a better future. Anne, in contrast, is a mature woman who migrates in the opposite direction, from France to the Dominican Republic, where instead of looking for work she seeks refuge, relaxation and oblivion.
FLMTQ: Did you envision a world in which Noelí would actually embark to Paris with Anne? Or is the fact that it's impossible primarily what keeps her love going?
G&C: As part of the process of writing the script, in one of the earliest drafts, we envisioned Noelí going to France with Jean Noel (before he became Anne). That idea was soon disregarded— Anne was convinced that Noelí would never find satisfaction there, so it was not a possibility.
But Noelí's willingness to go there was so powerful that the story could continue forever; we therefore decided to shoot another film, which I'll talk about later.
FLMTQ: By presenting Noelí as neither predator nor victim, she becomes a much more complex character: she has her own motivations, secrets, desires. This is also the first acting experience for Yanet Mojica. What was it like working with a non-professional actor? What was the casting process like? On set, how did you work with her to guide her through these intimate moments?
G&C: This is the first time, actually, that we have worked with professional actors. Anne is an old woman coming to the Dominican Republic from Europe, looking for youth, warmth and desire. The melancholy in Geraldine Chaplin's eyes and her fragility convinced us she was perfect for the role and so we embarked on working with a professional actor for the first time.
We wanted to offer a contrast Anne with Noelí, who would be played by a non-professional actress. We wanted her to be as raw as possible. So we looked for a girl who had the qualities of a beach-town girl.
Geraldine visited the Dominican in June 2013 so we could meet personally and do some camera tests. During her visit we met Yanet Mojica in Las Terrenas, while dancing in a Disco Terraza. Yanet's relaxed fire caught our attention, and we invited her to do a casting. We put the camera in front of her and Geraldine and gave her simple instructions for a scene— Yanet’s interpretation was spontaneous and natural; and she did what almost any Dominican would do, without noticing, losing her accent and unconsciously imitating Geraldine's way of talking but with a slight Italian accent, which proved she already had some connections to tourists.
Meanwhile, Yanet's mother was living in Europe like Noelí's mother. She gifted us that authenticity.
FLMTQ: Last year you announced that you were working on Noelí Overseas. Can you provide us with any information on this new project?
G&C: One of the greatest opportunities to arise from Sand Dollars was working with Yanet Mojica. Her dream, like Noelí's, was to travel to Europe. When working with non-professional actors, one feels the need to accompany them throughout their professional growth or in their way back to everyday life.
After her first appearance onscreen alongisde Geraldine Chaplin, Yanet fostered many expectations in regards to her nascent career as an actress. Nevertheless her desires and ambitions were then and still remain a mystery to us all. Noelí Overseas seeks to close in on those desires and illusions, which represent not only on Yanet but also the Dominican immigrant woman.
Interview by Dr. Ursula Grisham
Head Curator, Filmatique