Tribeca 2023 Interview: Gabriella A. Moses on Finding Synchronicities in the Unusual Marriages of “Boca Chica”

No expense will be spared once Elvis is in the building in “Boca Chica” – not the one you might necessarily be thinking of, but the cousin of Carmen (Lia Chapman), who is eager to welcome him back to her beachside restaurant in the Dominican Republic not only because it’s a rare event after he moved to Texas, but because the “rum, food and nonstop music” he’s requesting will bring in a much needed cash infusion for the business which has seen better days. There is a buzz about the place, though it seems lost on Desi (Scarlet Camilo), who is excited for the festivities when it means that her brother Fran (Jean Cruz), who moved away to New York, will also soon be arriving in town, but has become at ease at social events in general, teased mercilessly by other girls her age and even her mother’s friends for her changing body, with no way of winning when Carmen insists on her getting out of the habit of wearing Fran’s old clothes and she’s sarcastically asked at choir practice if she’s pregnant.

In Gabriella A. Moses’ lovely debut feature, the joys and frustrations of living on an island are particularly acute when you can see why Desi would hope to leave her neck of the DR as soon as possible yet the allure of the place is presented in full flourish to anyone looking in from abroad. It isn’t just the location, but the family’s legacy in Boca Chica that’s a bit of a double edged sword as both Fran, an accordion player, and Desi, who sings, have to contend with the memory of their late grandfather, a legendary musician in the community, when they have plans to pursue careers of their own and while Desi admires Fran for being old enough to take the initiative to leave, she also isn’t old enough herself to actually know why he did, though his return may bring some uncomfortable answers.

The moment may feel stifling for those immediately in it, but “Boca Chica” arrives as a blast of fresh air as Desi comes to learn the truth and starts to find her own voice, recognizing that she not only has a gift for singing but can hold her own in rap battles that take place in certain corners of the island. She isn’t the only one to show off a distinctive voice in the film with Moses working from a delicate script by “Bad Hair” director Mariana Rondón and editor Marité Ugas to illuminate both the beauty and foreboding of a tale of innocence lost, envisioning a culture in the Dominican Republic not unlike its central character that is idealized without understanding everything that’s happening underneath the surface and for the director, the film proved to be to be an opportunity to get in touch with her own family roots when she was walking down the same streets her mother once did in preparation for the shoot. With the film making its premiere at Tribeca in New York, Moses recently spoke about reconciling her heritage with the place she calls home now, making a discovery with the film’s star Camilo and taking inspiration from locations.

How did this come about? It feels so personal, yet I understand the script found its way to you.

Yeah, this is my directorial debut feature and I had received a lot of support in the past through the Sundance Labs, Tribeca’s Institute programs, New York Women in Film and Television, as well as the Black List in development on some of my own projects. It’s the first time I was directing something I hadn’t written, but through those different labs and workshops Sterlyn Ramirez, a Dominican producer, found my work. She knew I was Dominican-American and that all the themes that I explored were through the viewpoint of the Dominican diaspora or young women, so I got an e-mail saying that they had a project in development. I was stuck with financing on a project “Leche,” a Dominican-centric folk horror film that had been through development for five years at that point, so I was like, “Okay, let me meet this Dominican producer and learn what her project is about” and [found] it had to do with themes that I was exploring in some of my writing as well as [in terms of] coming of age and sex tourism, so we were speaking the same language terms of creative goals and vision.

It does seem to resemble the plot of what I’ve heard about your script for “El Timbre de Tu Voz.” Were there ways you felt you could personalize this?

Yeah, we joke about it now, but when I first got the e-mail, I had a little bit of a, “Oh no, I have a project,” and I sent her the script for “El Timbre,” and then I came to realize it was exploring the same themes and world from a different lens. Although the Dominican Republic is a small country, there’s the two coasts which are both very like tourism-centric, and “El Timbre” took place on the north coast, but [“Boca Chica”] was closer to the capital of Santo Domingo, and [while both were] exploring things through the lens of a young girl who’s 12, “El Timbre” has to do more with [a consciousness of] sexuality and this has to do more about her surroundings [where] her family owns a restaurant and she’s been opening her eyes to the secrets of her family and following her own dreams as a singer and a musician. What I loved about it was that thematically it was similar, but it was different enough and I was incredibly excited that the writers were Marité Ugás and Mariana Rondón, who had written “Pelo Malo,” which explores colorism [like] my film “Leche,” which had been in development. So that felt kismet that I admire and look up to these screenwriters and I usually wouldn’t be the first person to jump at taking on that endeavor, especially in Spanish – it was my first time directing entirely in Spanish – but it just felt like this was the journey that I was meant to go on.

That surprises me because this feels so lived in – how familiar were you with this particular area?

It’s interesting because our screenwriters are Venezuelan and Peruvian, so they’re also coming to the world from a very specific standpoint and mirroring their own [personal] experiences, but understanding and doing the research. I had worked with the Girls Foundation on the North Coast called Mariposa, and that was very much a mirror of what’s happening in “Boca Chica,” just in the other side of the coast. There are slight differences in terms of what the tourism world looks like, but very similar in terms of exploitation of young girls and the economy being fueled by the same sorts of things. We were in prep in October, but in August, Sterlyn, the producer, and then Marité Ugás, one of the writers, and myself went to talk to more of the people within the community. I met some of the young boys who are in the film as the rappers to connect with them and learn more about where they spent time, how they were with music and the culture of their community and that also helped us find some of these locations.

I ended up doing my own little director’s pass on the script based off of some of the locations. Our first night in Boca Chica, I saw this rooftop pool with this LED over it changing color and the pool was abandoned [with] a little bit of a strange feeling to it. I was in an apartment building across from it, thinking, “This feels like an incredible location for the scene where she’s approached by these tourists and expats and feels unsafe.” There are so many layers of the script that came to life from the writers and I being there. My mother’s from the center of the country and comes from not an incredibly privileged background, so much of that also resonated being a daughter of someone who moved from the Campo, [tracking a character] of a very similar financial background as our family and then came to the States and grew up in the projects, so there were aspects that weren’t specific to Boca Chica, but which I carried there and then helped develop it once we were in prep.

I loved that central restaurant that faces out onto the beach. What was it like to find that as a central location? 

Yeah, that was our home base, and It’s interesting because that was another location that I saw during our scouts. We were wandering around the area and there’s this neighboring town called Guayacanes that was between Juan Dolio, where we were staying, and Boca Chica. There’s a series of different restaurants and in the DR, many of these restaurant strips are loud. We love our music, we love our food, and we’re celebrating from 10 am onwards, so for film, as you can imagine, that’s a little difficult sometimes to be rolling sound around because you don’t want to interrupt the flow of business or the locals and this area of the beach during the season was a little more quiet.

I had seen this restaurant and it was owned by a French ex-pat, and I remember this space felt like something that was something more at one point and [in the film] the idea is that these women have had a successful business, but things have been slow and they’re very proud, so they’re trying to rebuild their grandeur and the history and heritage. I don’t think that was immediately what Marité [Ugás] was thinking, but we had a discussion about how I felt about the family and where they were and then later when Jenn Calcaño, our production designer, came on board, we talked through color palette and how we could really bring in something because the restaurant originally was just white. All that texture on the roof existed, but once we decided we were going to hand paint the family’s name, we were going to change the color when they tried to restore it for the wedding and all of that came to life during the scouts and being in the location.

It’s a brilliant idea that it doesn’t take place over a day and yet it seems to move from day to night as the film goes on. Was that part of this from the beginning?

So much of the central theme is the duality of paradise and how it is this destination that promises so much to outsiders, and the reality is there is so much warmth and pride for anyone that’s grown up on the island or in the Caribbean but there are sometimes these darker sides to having tourism. When that is your main source of income, there is exploitation when it comes to what lengths people will go to to try and turn a profit and that mirrored our night scenes, which did exist in the script, but during development, there were certain scenes that were set during the day, so when I came onto the project [I asked], what if we shifted this [one] confrontation to after the hotel scene, which takes place at night versus in the morning, because [Desi will] be in a more vulnerable position or state mentally and figuring out what time some of the rap scenes took place was also important. Even dusk, [that moment] when she destroys a dress was really centered around how do we want the flow of this passage of time because we watch her brother Fran start out in New York, and then comes to Boca Chica. So a lot of that was the brilliant work of our screenwriters, but some of it shifted based upon schedules, but usually fueled by the thematic vision.

How do you find your lead for this?

Valerie Hernandez is our casting director and I had heard her about when I was in development on “El Timbre de Tu Voz” because I had started some developmental conversations with that before the pandemic and Valerie was was someone that both me and the producer Sterlyn were excited about working with. We were trying to get a female-led department head situation and from the jump, we knew we had cast pretty wide to go find our Desi. At first we had tapes come in and then we had an open call through a dance academy in the capita [of the DR] and Scarlet stood out for multiple reasons — she had a background in music, she’s been dancing since she was like four years old and she was 10 when we shot the film. She was somebody who already loved to sing and had a musical background, but she was not super comfortable starting out with rapping, but we had an incredible 16-year-old Dominican rapper named Johan [Manuel Tibrey] who came on and coach her through. She wrote the lyrics for “Subie,” which is featured in the film at the end.

Then with Jean Cruz, who played Fran and is based in Madrid, [he and Scarlet] had a chemistry that really worked and it was nice that [developing] the relationship of them as brother and sister was via FaceTime, [so there were] all these calls and there had been distance between them [like in the film]. So to see that warmth or the frustrations [of being apart] translate where they’re familiar but there is this distance actually worked out in terms of their relationship. But I just knew from the start that [Scarlet] had this maturity and resiliency about her and something in her eyes, which I think also comes across differently when you’re on a Zoom, but I could see that there would be something brilliant within her and she always says that I’m her accomplice. I built an incredible relationship with her mother as well, which I think is the key when you’re casting kids. You cast around the family and you find those people that have strong support systems, so Scarlet was really a treasure and this is just the start of her career.

I imagine, and she’s just one of many musicians in the film – were you looking for cast with that background who could act or were actors who had to learn an instrument?

For Scarlet, I knew I needed to see that she had some confidence as a singer, but I saw her charisma and professionalism, so I knew we would be able to mold that and [she] worked with two acting coaches and then with the dialect around Boca Chica, which is a specific neighborhood [because] as with any Latin American country, regionally there’s gonna be a shift in accents, so that was part of the process. But in terms of musicians, we made sure we were always collaborating with people and that people had the time and background around the instruments that they were being involved in and we tried to cast musicians in those key roles [where music was needed] like the background at the wedding. That was a local band from Boca Chica, and the rappers were local talent from Boca Chica, except for [the character of] Chica Alta, who is a young talent as well. Nany Flow is her name and she created an original rap around the themes of the film. It was really important for me to highlight Dominican emerging voices in the music, as well as on screen and women especially.

When the film takes on a life of its own, is there anything that you can get excited about?

The greatest joy was watching Scarlet come out of her shell. I’ve worked with kids a lot [because] I tell these coming-of-age stories, and we shot to a certain extent in chronological order because I wanted to shoot the performance towards the end [when] she felt very comfortable with the rest of the cast and crew and her journey mirrored Desi’s and there’s a certain aspect of that I didn’t realize. Watching her enter the room during prep and being excited but anxious and doing these first drills with Vicente Santos, who was our acting coach, and then going through building this character with her and also improvising myself with her in the room and then her being so vocal and going out there and so confident, you’re like, “This girl is having this first experience as an actress and going along for the journey and trust to find her own voice.” It was really incredible once you watch it unfold in the ways that you dreamed of for her and that was something especially beautiful to watch throughout the process.

It’s such a huge achievement for yourself as well. What’s it like bringing it to Tribeca?

It feels very full circle in many ways. I started out as a volunteer at the Tribeca Film Festival. I was a freshman during college, taking numbers at the door and then they went on to support me through Untold Stories — where I didn’t win a million dollars to make my film — and I also pitched for [their grant] Through Her Lens and didn’t get that money either. [laughs] But to have found this community to make this film through my mother’s home country, which is a huge part of every story I’ve told, and then go back [to New York] where my mother immigrated to the States and be able to tell this story is an incredibly emotional journey. We wrapped on the one-year anniversary of my abuela’s death, and she was the first person to come to the States, so for me, it’s a homecoming. This film is about homecomings and I’m just very excited for the Dominican diaspora as a whole to experience this film, for some of the global issues to be raised and conversations to be started and to hopefully have people feel seen and to create visibility as a young woman of color making her first film. A lot of us are out there doing it, but there needs to be more of us, so I’m very excited and humbled and grateful for the response and excitement right now.

“Boca Chica” will screen at Tribeca Festival at AMC 19th St. East on June 12th at 9:15 pm and June 17th at 2:15 pm.

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