“You know what the problem is. Don’t act like you don’t know,” a bureaucrat at the Central Board of Elections in Santo Domingo can be overheard telling Teofilo Murat, one of the central subjects in Michèle Stephenson’s “Stateless” as he attempts to get new paperwork certifying his citizenship in the Dominican Republic. Prior to Stephenson’s covert camera peeking in on this appointment, Teofilo needed to renew his passport and subsequently had the Board suspend and annul his documents altogether, citing some vague issues with his birth certificate that had never been an issue in the past, but both men know from the color of his skin, his issues aren’t likely to be resolved any time soon when Dominicans of Haitian descent have been increasingly alienated within the country with over 200,000 having their citizenship taken away in 2015.
The simple title cards that open “Stateless” leave a lot to unpack, as a few sentences sum up two centuries’ worth of pain for Haitians who have made the neighboring Dominican Republic their home, with dictator Rafael Trujillo ordering the execution of Haitian families in 1939 as a way of asserting more control over the island territory of Hispaniola that the two countries had shared since 1804. However, Stephenson wastes little screen time on the past, save for a wraparound invoking an old folk tale passed around of a young girl who’s mother was murdered during Trujillo’s purge, instead looking to two women intent on shaping the country’s future in Rosa Iris Diendomi-Álvarez, a lawyer whose father came from Haiti to work in the sugar cane fields of the Dominican Republic and whose mother’s roots in the country extend back three generations, and Gladys Feliz, a member of the Dominican Nationalist movement who keeps a close eye on the border.
The situation will likely sound all too sadly familiar to many around the world, but it’s pressing in the Dominican Republic where President Danilo Medina may run for reelection on a platform of improving metro services, but appeals less overtly to voters who do not see dark-skinned citizens as equals. Peddling rhetoric about how he couldn’t possibly be racist when his approval ratings remain high in a country comprised of 80 percent who identify as black or mulatto, President Medina actively attempts to excise them from the population with the National Regularization Plan, requiring everyone in the country to apply for new identification, allowing low level bureaucrats such as the one Diendomi-Álvarez’s cousin Teofilo encounters to nitpick applications and expecting huge swaths of Haitians, who work at the lowest levels of society, fall off the rolls without even hearing about the new IDs or failing to apply before the coming deadline.
Stephenson follows Diendomi-Álvarez out to the sugar cane fields of Batey Chicharrones where she attempts to make as many citizens aware of the certificates necessary for the new IDs as possible while trailing Feliz as an active counterpoint, complaining of porous borders and looking for the projects that were set up by the government to accommodate Haitian migrant workers as evidence of the state’s largesse, only to discover it’s not what she thought. Although the two are unlikely to agree on anything else, they both share a sense of desperation with the situation that’s unfolding and “Stateless” is able to convey how the political is deeply personal, particularly when the film sneaks away from chronicling the advocacy on both sides to capture the very practical effects that the new laws have on Murat’s life, separated from his two young children and sweating out the uncertainty of his status on a moment-to-moment basis.
As powerful as some of the imagery is in “Stateless,” it’s fitting that words carry so much power in the opening introduction of “Stateless” when by its end you see how just a few can rob a person of their identity, and more horrifically, an entire culture in this case. While Stephenson doesn’t depict any violence on camera, she captures how there are other ways these days to erase a life.