The Cairo International Film Festival witnessed a rare first on Saturday at the Cairo Opera House: its first screening of a Dominican movie.
The feature length film, “Jean Gentil”, is the work of Mexican-Dominican husband-wife team Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman. Based on the life of a real man named Jean Remy Genty, a Haitian immigrant living in Santo Domingo who got to know Guzman when she took Haitian Creole lessons with him, the film is the result of the directors’ desire to explore the experiences of Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic.
Growing up in the Dominican Republic, Guzman was accustomed to seeing Haitian migrants working at construction sites around the city, but observed little contact between them and Dominicans. “I was very curious about their lives and I wanted to connect with them; to do so I felt that it was important to learn their language and this is how I got to know Jean,” she explained.
The film’s script was written in collaboration with Genty, who plays himself in the film. The directors chose to present Genty’s life through a fictionalized account of his experiences rather than as a documentary, because, as Cardenas observed, it allowed for a “more truthful account of his life.”
The film follows the Haitian accountant and tri-lingual professor as he struggles with unemployment and despair. In Santo Domingo he finds himself jobless, homeless and desperate with no one but God to turn to for help. After spending the night on a construction site, the night watchman helps him secure a job in the rural part of the country. Eager to work but unwilling to compromise his morals, Genty finds it impossible to fit in with his hard-drinking, womanizing co-workers and soon finds himself jobless and homeless in the jungle.
As he struggles to survive in the open air, Genty begins experiencing severe headaches and prays to God for assistance. Growing more desperate, he befriends a pair of young plantation workers whom he begs to help him commit suicide, asking them desperately “who will notice if I’m gone?”
The friends calm him down and encourage him to tutor a girl studying French in the village. There is a brief moment where we see his hope returning, but this positive event is trumped by Genty’s realization that he has nothing to offer the girl and no way out of his predicament. The end of the movie sees him walking desperately on the beach praying to God before falling to the ground dead, presumably from an aneurism.
Short on action and long on stretches of aimlessness and silence, the film captures the hopelessness of Genty’s life, and the torture of an educated, moral person caught in trying circumstances. Where another man might have embraced the lifestyle of the people he found himself amongst, throwing himself into drinking, smoking and womanizing, Genty’s moral character prevents him from even these temporary escapes and forces him into a tortured and despairing existence.
The film’s dramatic conclusion evokes the supreme solitude of Genty’s end, but also conjures up questions about what his life and death alone and far from his family mean for humanity. A faith as strong as Genty’s own is needed to believe that his life had a purpose and was not the simple result of corruption, war and a world indifferent to suffering.
Filmed on location in Santo Domingo and Port-au-Prince just before the earthquake, the film includes some footage from after the tragedy, which is played after Genty’s final collapse on the beach. Although striking, the footage detracts from the film’s artistic symmetry and Genty’s personal story. The fate of Haiti’s 11 million souls cannot be lumped into the story of one man and one country: some of Genty’s experiences are universal, but many are extremely personal, the result of his own moral character and background.
Nevertheless, the film, which received a Special Mention at the Venice International Film Festival, will certainly go down as one of the most unique and moving at this year’s festival, putting its young directors firmly on the hot list of up and coming filmmakers to watch into the future.