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Making a Dominican Chameleon: An Interview with Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias

Discussing "Cocote", a radical and diverse film exploring ideas of Dominican identity, with its filmmaker.
Cocote
In the beautifully vivid film Cocote, Dominican filmmaker Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias builds on some weighty ideas surrounding Dominican identity. The story is straightforward: Alberto (played by Vicente Santos), a hefty young gardener who works at an upper-class home in Santo Domingo, is called back to his home village after learning his father has been murdered. Once back home, Alberto, who is a devout Evangelical Christian, is confronted by his family’s religion which mixes old African and Taino rites with Catholic traditions. His family—mostly matriarchs—urge him to “solve” the murder of his father but Alberto clashes with his relatives’ religion and struggles with his own internal moral conflicts.
But what makes Cocote so unique is not just its portrayal of the often-forgotten communities of Dominican Republic, but its radical use of cinematic language. Skillfully employing a variety of film formats from celluloid to digital, black and white to color, high-def digital to low-def, vérité camerawork to carefully lit shots, the result is an assortment of wildly different flavors, textures and notes that all come together within a very strong and thoughtfully constructed framework to harmonize on screen. Avoiding idealizations, De los Santos Arias instead prefers to wrestle with the infinite complex, contradictory and diverse culture that is so distinctive of Caribbean identity.
Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias chatted with us about post-colonial politics, the state of Dominican cinema and his unique creative process in his film Cocote, which is playing as part of New Directors/New Films in New York.

NOTEBOOK: How did this film originate?
NELSON CARLO DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: The way I want to make films is very chaotic. There’s a clear narrative in Cocote but if you’ve seen any of my previous films, they all come from a more theoretical realm instead of having a narrative device. I guess I was first interested in analyzing violence from a different perspective. I know that violence is a tricky and idiosyncratic situation in any country in Latin America. In terms of violence in cinema, it has been exploited in a way to fulfill the requirements that the United States or Europe want to see from Latin American films. So I was thinking about how do I represent violence and at the same time, how do I represent a society without using violence as the main center to signify it? Then I started investigating post-colonial theory. The first idea of Cocote came from my interest in the boom of the Protestant church and the way that Catholicism was expressed popularly. I wanted to create this character that was more than just a character. He was more like a discourse.
NOTEBOOK: A boom of Protestant churches?
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: Yeah, American colonization used Christianity to convert people. Since the big occupation started, they were traveling with their churches, like Jehovah’s Witnesses. For me, the Protestant church is an arm of capitalism in the way that they dominate society.
NOTEBOOK: Like a second wave of colonialism.
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: Exactly, so you have cases like Brazil where you see the Protestant church actually gaining power within the structure of government. For me, it’s complicated because we haven’t been able to discuss how the moral Judeo-Christian system has spread and organized the Western world. We haven’t been able to organize these ideas within the countries and we already have been colonized by other types of religions that also come with their own political and economical structures. From this very heavy theoretical background is where I started organizing this film.
NOTEBOOK: I’m curious about the way you came about making this film on a production level. Your location choice is a very powerful decision. Did you purposely locate your film on a border town with Haiti?
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: The location doesn’t exist. There’s no town with all of those geographical characteristics. Pedernales does exist, but Oviedo doesn’t. Villa Mella is where most of the film happened and it’s just twenty minute from the capital. This is something that I truly regret. The white population of the Dominican Republic has always viewed African descent not as “Dominican with African descent” but as “Haitian-influenced.” For me, the location was more an aesthetic decision and I was not thinking at that time about this. It was so reckless of me because I think a lot of everything I do.  
When I premiered the film in Santo Domingo there was this person who came to me and said, “thank you so much, this is an amazing portrait of the bordering towns in the Dominican Republic” and that was a loss for me because I should have been clear in the film that this is not actually in Pedernales, close to Haiti, it’s in fact here, just twenty minutes from Santo Domingo.
NOTEBOOK: Back to the production side of things, how did you find all of these non-actors?
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: I come from making films on my own so I would never hire someone to do the casting or find location. I had to confront those locations and those communities so it was a very long process. I did location scouting and casting by myself and saw many people in Santo Domingo, in Baní, in Santiago—all over the place. I spent almost a year and a half, but I was also at CalArts so I was doing it only in the summer. I would come in the summer and do research and spend two months looking for locations and traveling the island.
If I’m going to represent invisible communities and if I’m having a post-colonial or de-colonial discourse, I think the confrontation between me and the subject that is being represented has to be a negotiation. People from the community who were represented had to be cast from that community. Getting professional actors to play them was just continuing the problem of representation.  
When I was scouting these towns—most in the country side and some in neighborhoods in Santo Domingo—I found small matriarchal organizations, so I had a lot of candidates for the female characters. We found so many strong women, so many creative women, women that can perfectly do the character. The men however, were terrible, they just stay there, have kids, get drunk…The women have to support their kids and their husbands, sort of a switch of gender roles in a way. I think you can see that in Cocote, you can see all these women that are so powerful, they can take care of their problems but wait for the men to do it—even though they’re completely capable to doing it themselves. So I decided to get professional actors for the male roles because I couldn’t find the character of Alberto and I couldn’t find the policeman character. So I started a very long process and saw a lot of actors.
Once I had my actors, I wanted to have the freedom to move the camera anywhere I wanted so I had to make these actors able to improvise. They had to be comfortable learning the roles and play without much direction. I spent maybe two months, three days per week rehearsing. They never rehearsed so much for a film. I had to work so hard with them individually, I had to create a system for each of them. For example, Yuberbi de la Rosa didn’t know how to read so she was not able to improvise. We needed to organize her ideas and create structures for her scene. I found out that she was good at memorizing.
NOTEBOOK: Yuberbi’s monologue in the river scene is extraordinary.  
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: We did that in six takes and all six times were exactly the same, all memorized.
NOTEBOOK: Let’s talk about style. One can see that there’s a clear intention here to reinvent and play around with language, especially the way you mix different formats. 
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: I call that a chameleon. This aesthetic decision was present since day one.
NOTEBOOK: What do you mean by “chameleon”?
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: Using different textures, colors and formats, the way a chameleon changes all the time. That was something I had been working on for a long time. For the sake of this interview, it would be better to explain myself in several points.
Number one, I believe in freedom. Studying in Europe and in the U.S., the first thing that you will realize is that filmmakers from the first world are always in a very privileged position where they have the freedom to experiment with cinematic language. That is something that for third world filmmakers is a little bit difficult. If you see experimentation in Latin American cinema the way it has been done in the last 20 years it is experimentation with time and duration, which is a very Bazinian idea but also a very bourgeois aesthetic. Most of Latin American directors are coming from upper classes and they portray poverty in a specific way. I find this use of time a very passive way of representation. You don’t commit, you’re just observing from a very privileged place. So that was the first thing I wanted to walk away from.
My freedom or any freedom of any Third World filmmaker is the first thing that I’m going to defend. I wanted to proclaim freedom in how we decide to represent our society. One thing that’s a very particular characteristic for the Caribbean is the idea of identity and the way it’s rooted to a land. This idea of identity is a very complicated situation because if there’s a truly multicultural place, it’s the Caribbean. It is where basically every empire that has existed in the last 500 years took a piece of land. So what is Dominican identity? It doesn’t exist as such. So that’s why my film has to be a hybrid in terms of aesthetics but also in terms of genre, in terms of how we’re going to discuss different things. When I think of the concept of a chameleon or the idea of “mulatto”—not only a political and racial idea but also as an aesthetic concept—I think that these are the things I’m going to embrace. When I’m filming by myself, it’s going to be in a very organic way.
I think sometimes it works for some people, some people don’t even realize that the color changed or that they aspect ratio changed and that is the most beautiful thing for me. I think that’s the role of the Caribbean, or the role of any mixed culture: to bring diversity and not only one discourse.  
NOTEBOOK: I think it’s hard to pull off something that is so fragmented and yet cohesive. Sort of like Dominican culture, your film is both consistent and fragmented. But in a practical sense, when it came down to sit down with your crew, how did you work together to construct such a wide variety of imagery and yet still make it so consistent?  
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: Me and cinematographer Roman Kasseroller studied together. I studied cinematography so I’ve been my own cinematographer for all my films and also did a lot of the camera work for this one. I also did the sound design. But what the most difficult part for me was to work with people who were already working in more commercial cinema. Because I was making films by myself and I do believe that, for example, if someone else edits my films, my films would not be mine because that’s where I actually create the films most of the time. I do not think that editing is divorced by sound design, especially for me. You have to balance this dichotomy between image and sound instead of being so image-centric. Sound can be better than images and you can create new ideas in that sense. So that was a very hard for them to process because they would not understand that. The aesthetics of Cocote do not come from a Director of Photography standpoint, they come from my previous films. The first thing the DP would say is, “Okay, please tell me what scenes will be on film or what scenes will be in black and white…” I’d say, “No, I can’t tell you that because I will think about that later.” So for them, it was very difficult to work with me in the beginning, but by the end they understood that the film was already too planned, and the script was too closed, and the actors were already rehearsed. So when they understood that those things were not going to change, we were able to improvise in the shooting and create new ideas. When they understood that we were able to actually move on. It was very interesting process. I think that’s why the film is so good in terms of the technical aspect because cinema is a community work, so for the first time that my ideas were able to touch people who know more about cinematography or sound than me. They were more technically prepared and that’s how they took my ideas and made them much better.
NOTEBOOK: That all stems from a very strong conceptual foundation, you were allowed this freedom because you already had rehearsed a ton with actors and you had very clear ideas of what your film would be like and look like.
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: It’s very obvious when you see the film formally because there’s all these different formats, but if you go through the film you’ll see that there’s also different production techniques: there are parts that are more documentary, other parts are more fictionalized…
 
NOTEBOOK: It’s very easy for the audience to take in the image, but the soundtrack, the sound design, and the music is just as powerful and equally fragmented and dynamic as your visuals. 
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: The way I worked is I edit and do the sound design together and make all these decisions from a filmmaker’s standpoint, and then I sent it to [sound director] Nahuel Palenque and what he did was take all the sound design that I did and made it a higher quality—but the main idea was mine. But then there were more technical moments where I was basically saying yes or no. Nahuel was so amazing, a huge percentage of the sound is direct sound and he is a genius with direct sound.
NOTEBOOK: Maybe I’m confusing it with the sound design, but I could have sworn I heard a score. Was there a music soundtrack?
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: No, but there is a cello tune, it’s just one repeated note. There’s no musician there, that was just me with a cello tune.
NOTEBOOK: I must have registered that as a score, but it’s all so mixed in with sounds of the environment—it’s a very textured soundscape, there’s a lot going on. 
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: I like to work environment sounds as if they were music notes. If you hear the sea, there’s probably five different sea sounds. I’m looking for electronic textures, different types of sound of the same thing. And then the singing in the rituals, I didn’t pick those songs, those are the songs they’ve been singing forever. Palo, Salves and Congo… all of this music came from Villa Mella and Baní. 
NOTEBOOK: There’s some outrageous footage that appears to be pulled from television or YouTube. Particularly, footage of people mourning the death of a goat or of the rooster who channels Jesus—is that real footage or did you recreate it? 
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: It’s real. I believe in the representation of the image what society can learn of itself and its culture. I think television plays an important role in representing Dominican identity, so I wanted to add those representations of the religiosity. I don’t know if it’s a critique or not but I think it’s important to discuss it—what is it that we are seeing of ourselves in television? How are we being represented? Why is the news picking these stories? Those stories are very famous here, the story of the goat is very famous. How do we discuss that? It was a very delicate thing to ask. 
NOTEBOOK: I’m interested in the way Dominican Republic is trying to build a national cinema. Can you give me a quick diagnosis on the health of Dominican cinema right now and how do you think all the recent government incentives are working out so far?
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: Right now, the volume is very high. Everybody is so excited about cinema. So, Cocote is good but some other crap film is also good, everything is good! We are living through a romanticism of cinema where we celebrate everything and I think that’s what the Dominican [Republic] Film Commission’s job is right now—everything is a celebration. But for me, it is not a celebration. The problem with Dominican Republic is so complex, especially for my generation, it is so Americanized, it is so colonized that for me, I cannot start celebrating all the films out here. Cocote somehow showed me that it’s not about cinema, it’s about us to being able to think by ourselves. I will support cinema because I love cinema and will support the Film Commission but with the hope that someday we will be more rigorous with what we are promoting.  
Right now, we are in a crisis in terms of the new film industry law. There’s a lot of bad films and with this law, a lot of taxes are not getting back to the government, so that’s a problem. What they do with the taxes is another question. What they are doing is basically hurting the film law and there is a movement within this new government to eliminate the film law and if that happens we are going to be in trouble. They don’t understand the importance of cinema. They see it as just pure entertainment. We are in a very delicate situation now.
NOTEBOOK: You opened in Dominican theaters for about six weeks, how did people react there? 
DE LOS SANTOS ARIAS: It has a beautiful story and a very bad story. The beautiful story is that journalists and film critics there understood the film more than I expected. This is a very corrupt country and corruption is part of everyday life, so most of the times you have to pay for people to actually write about your film—of course I didn’t pay anything. It was crazy the way people talked about the film, they were like, “This is the first Dominican film.” They went crazy! But not a lot of people went to see it and this has two reasons: the first one is because in Santo Domingo, the upper-middle class or high class, those who have access to or read newspapers don’t care about the Dominican Republic. There’s no support. These people never go to see cinema and that’s not because of me or Cocote, they will just never go to the cinema, period. They are into Netflix or Instagram, they are not willing to discuss any critical thinking in the Dominican Republic. The cinema that is coming from that sector is a bad copy of bad Hollywood films. The few people who went to see it who were from lower or working classes identified in a very emotional way: they were angry, they were happy, they cried… That’s the best joy I have about this film.  
I didn’t have the money and no private company wanted to invest in this film even though it was the film of the year in Dominican Republic. They knew they weren’t going to make any money from it, so I wasn’t able to have advertising campaign. So most of the people didn’t know that Cocote was playing. The whole thing was bittersweet. The problem here is that the colonization and the Americanization is so intense that there’s no discourse on anything. If you talk to someone who has had my education, they won’t have an accent speaking English because the good schools here are all in English. Colonization in this country is so fucking deep that I don’t even know how to start working against it. Perhaps Cocote is a start.

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