Imagine for a moment that the country you were born in and spent your entire life in suddenly strips your citizenship because one of your parents, or grandparents, were born in another country. This nightmarish scenario is what 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent find themselves unable to wake up from in Michèle Stephenson’s powerful documentary Stateless. Despite their numerous contributions to society, these Haitian descendants have long been the pinatas at which the government of the Dominican Republic has been swinging with its anti-Black policies.
Despite sharing the island of Hispaniola, and fighting side by side in the past, the relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti is anything but harmonious. Long standing racial tensions were ignited in 1937 when dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the death of thousands of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. Trujillo wanted to cleanse his country by whitening it up at all cost, even if it came at the expense of dark-skinned Dominicans.
This unfounded hatred for the Haitian bloodline was passed down for generations culminating politically in 2013 when the Dominican Constitutional Court began revoking citizenship retroactively to 1929. While there are activists and attorneys such as Rosa Iris Diendomi-Álvarez who are fighting this unjust policy, they face an uphill battle with one hand tied behind their back. Tirelessly working with local Haitian descendants to get their Dominican birth certificates recognized by government ministries, school boards, and all those who no longer see them as human beings, Diendomi-Álvarez is constantly met with pushback at every level.
The rise of the Dominican Nationalist political movement and the hate speech flooding social media has not made Diendomi-Álvarez’s plight any easier. This point really hits home when she decides to evoke change by running for political office.
Rather than simply documenting Diendomi-Álvarez’s campaign, which includes dealing with threats to her life and her sons, Stateless explores the hypocrisy that plagues those that she fights for. The best example of this comes via nationalist party member Gladys Feliz-Pimentel. The opposite of Diendomi-Álvarez in almost every way – Diendomi-Álvarez grew up poor with parents who worked the sugar cane fields, whereas Feliz-Pimentel’s ancestors include a powerful political figure – Feliz-Pimentel could easily be one of the poster children for the right-wing populism movement sweeping the globe. Literally watching travellers crossing the border, she preaches that the government should “build a wall” to stop the migrants who she believes are killers and rapist.
In juxtaposing the two influential women, the ideological divide within Stephenson’s film becomes painfully clear. For Diendomi-Álvarez this is a battle against corruption, a fight for the people who have given their lives and families to a country that used and then discarded them. Whereas Feliz-Pimentel, who admits that her children and ex-husband are black, and acknowledges the loyal contributions of the Haitian people, uses rhetoric clearly points to an issue of race and not population control.
The constant contradictions that consume nationalist ideologies are both fascinating and frustrating. The add an extra layer of sadness to a film where the blood, sweat and tears of the Haitian people linger over frame. Look no further than the story of Moraime, arguably the most visually striking sequence in the film, which recounts a Haitian girl on the run during the 1937 massacre for emphasis of this sentiment.
Stateless shows how easily systemic racism and political power can erode a society like a virus. The era of social media has only made this infection even more volatile. Stephenson’s film may focus on the Haitian descendants in the Dominican Republic, but Stateless’s powerful and haunting story of injustice carries universal appeal. It is a cautionary reminder of how easily one can become a stranger in your own home.
Stateless is available to stream at Hot Docs from May 28 to June 24