Beyond Borders: Dominicans Love Haitians Movement’s 2023 Nou Akoma Nou Sinèrji Haitian Dominican Transnational Film Festival

Guest writer Amanda M. Ortiz shares the story ILI Year 5 Fellow Clarivel Ruiz’s “Dominicans Love Haitians Movement’s Transnational Film Festival.”

Making my way to the midtown Manhattan location where the Dominicans Love Haitians Movement’s inaugural film festival was being held, I was unsure of what to expect but brimming with anticipation. That October morning was the picture of quintessential autumn in New York: crisp, clear, and characteristic of the onset of a season synonymous with new beginnings, all strikingly reflective of my own mindset heading into the three-day event. A labor of love for the organization, the Nou Akoma Nou Sinèrji Haitian Dominican Transnational Film Festival was to showcase a medley of primarily Dominican- and Haitian-helmed films all speaking to Dominicans Love Haitians Movement’s mission of fostering dialogue, enlightenment, and healing with regard to racism, anti-Blackness, genocide, colonization, and statelessness in present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti. And in its consistent approach to doing so through participatory art, storytelling, and performance events that both challenge and engage long-held biases, Nou Akoma Nou Sinèrji was Dominicans Love Haitians Movement’s latest undertaking in those efforts. The festival was fittingly taking place just one week following the 86th anniversary of Hispaniola’s 1937 genocide that ultimately drove a defining wedge between the island’s two nations. And as though to further cement the relevance of Dominicans Love Haitians Movement’s mission, purpose, and the event’s overarching message, it also grievously coincided with the blitz of Israel’s latest aggression against Palestine

"What Clarivel and Dominicans Love Haitians Movement were able to achieve with the inaugural Nou Akoma Nou Sinèrji Haitian Dominican Transnational Film Festival is nothing short of remarkable."

Film Festival Program Cover

The very idea of such an event was an utter novelty. Although prevalent Dominican anti-Haitianism is well-known in both communities, the history of its origins (particularly among Dominicans) is not, and the contrast in knowledge is stark. While generations of Haitians have confronted that history and the dominant Dominican genocide’s grave ongoing ripple effects, perception continues to be largely rooted in downplaying, outright denial, and widespread ignorance. And so, it was unsurprising that I had yet to come across any event that openly addressed that head on, much less one spearheaded by an entity or people of Dominican descent. 

Historically, there have likewise been very few Dominican-authored works in English or Spanish that even mention the ethnic cleansing. My own introduction to it happened at the age of 13, when I stumbled upon a work of literature that quite literally changed my life: Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones. In contrast to present day, at that time, there were sparse Dominican- or Haitian-authored works in circulation in English, let alone by members of the diaspora. Seeing myself or any semblance of my culture or lived experiences in print was virtually unheard of. And yet, it somehow did little to deter my younger self from continuing in a largely fruitless search. Coming across The Farming of Bones the year of its release in 1998 changed all that. I was astounded by what I encountered in its pages, a history directly pertaining to me that I’d never heard of or about. For me, it triggered a bevy of emotions: confusion, rage, disgust, heartbreak. Those 312 pages lit a fire in me that would forever color my perception of even some I hold dear and what I thought I once knew of my own culture. 

It’s with this personal history that I stepped into the festival space that first day. While I didn’t necessarily think the sole focus would be the events of 1937, I attempted to brace myself for the stories and emotions sure to arise from the featured films. Upon arrival, I checked in at the front desk and received a program with a list of the films to be shown over the course of the ensuing days. As there weren’t many people milling about, I headed to the lower level. There, I was greeted by a table trimmed in palm fronds displaying an array of cloth dolls ranging in color from cream to carob and adorned in an assortment of vibrant fabrics. The featured description relayed that they were the product of the Dominicans Love Haitians Movement’s Black Doll Project launched in 2017, sending Black dolls to children in the Caribbean in an effort to affirm and empower them in their Blackness and Negritude. 

Dominicans Love Haitians Movement Black Doll Project display

Dominicans Love Haitians Movement Black Doll Project display

"I had long been a social media follower and supporter of Dominicans Love Haitians Movement founder Clarivel Ruiz's work since happening upon the organization online shortly following its inception."

Another table nearby was set up with ballpoint pens, a legal pad of white paper, and a folding chair, modestly decorated with a vase of magenta flowers and a sign encouraging passersby to “Write Yourself a Love Letter.” As I had no set destination, I decided to sit and take the sign up on its invitation. I had all but finished just as Clarivel (we/us/you) was passing by. I had long been a social media follower and supporter of Dominicans Love Haitians Movement founder Clarivel Ruiz’s work since happening upon the organization online shortly following its inception. And though I naturally counted Clarivel’s presence at the event as a given, it never occurred to me I’d have the opportunity to meet, let alone interact with, Clarviel personally. 

A decades’ withheld revelation of Haitian ancestry by Clarivel’s father and the familial response that followed became the impetus for establishing Dominicans Love Haitians Movement. Since then, Clarivel’s journey with the organization has not been without its risks and challenges due to unabating resistance and hostility that often surfaces when assuming a mantle of truth-telling. This has included cyberattacks and threats from Dominican ultranationalists, who have gone so far as posting Clarivel’s photo and encouraging others both locally and abroad to locate and harm Clarivel. Over time, attempts at intimidation, violence, and defamation only heighten the exacting nature of such work and can understandably take a toll, which resulted in Clarivel’s prior temporary hiatus from Dominicans Love Haitians Movement and its initiatives. 

In addition to activism, Clarivel is also an artist, an educator, a filmmaker, and an overall creator. With a vitality that transcends space, Clarivel is an iconoclast with an intrepid commitment to Dominicans Love Haitians Movement’s underrepresented and largely silenced but vital cause. And so, meeting Clarivel in the flesh after years of admiration from afar was nothing short of a fangirl moment for me, which I unabashedly expressed along with gratitude for the organization’s continued work. And in the face of that effusiveness, the warm reception I received only added to my anticipation for what was to come. 

Back upstairs, the film festival officially kicked off with opening remarks as the lights dimmed and those in attendance settled in for the first films: the short Daughter of the Sea and the documentary film Stateless. With breaks in between, those were followed by Colours in the Dust and Haiti Is a Nation of Artists. All were immersive experiences and presented themes of artistry, the aftermath of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, spirituality, human rights abuses, politics, race, discrimination, and ancestry. There was even a virtual Q&A with the main subject of Stateless: activist, community organizer, lawyer, and asylee Rosa Iris Diendomi. By afternoon’s end, it was difficult to imagine that the festival’s subsequent days could hold a candle to the first, but there was, in fact, much more in store. 

Day two’s roster included the shorts Forever Twins, Please in Spanish, Id, The One in The Mirror, Cotton Candy, Espíritus en marcha, and Sisters By Water, and the full-length documentaries Jean Gentil, Chèche lavi, How (Not) to Build a School in Haiti, and Massacre River: The Woman Without a Country. While the films offered thematic echoes of day one, they also rendered new ones: migration, belonging, identity, and division. In contrast to the day prior, some of the shorts (Please in Spanish, Id, Cotton Candy) even managed to incorporate humor into their more weighted topics. The day’s more sizable audience had the opportunity to engage in a number of in-person and virtual Q&A panel discussions with many of the films’ directors and creators, including Rulx Noel (Forever Twins), Bechir Sylvain (Id), Shenny De Los Angeles (Sisters By Water), MarQuerite Hamden (Espíritus en marcha), Karlina Veras (The One in The Mirror), Jacquil Constant (Haiti Is a Nation of Artists), and Fredgy Noël (Cotton Candy).

(L to R): Ray Abellard, MelimeL, Rulx Noel, Bechir Sylvain (on screen), Karlina Veras (on screen), Clarivel Ruiz, Fredgy Noël, Daphnée Charles

(L to R): Ray Abellard, MelimeL, Rulx Noel, Bechir Sylvain (on screen), Karlina Veras (on screen), Clarivel Ruiz, Fredgy Noël, Daphnée Charles

The day also included sessions outside of the panels in which audience members were collectively encouraged to share thoughts and impressions with regard to the films and their themes. These sessions became vulnerable spaces of palpable reflection, as some tearfully spoke to personal correlations while others expressed warranted indignation and confusion upon learning of such history and circumstances for the first time. The crowd ran the gamut of representation, with many from the Haitian and Dominican communities (like me and my beloved friend Nathalie, a Port-au-Prince native who was my faithful companion for the second and third days of the festival) and others with no ties whatsoever. This lent to an environment that all at once facilitated release for the former and enlightenment for the latter an impactful scene to watch organically unfold. There was also generational diversity within the audience, with elders sharing invaluable lived experiences, including upbringings on Dominican bateyes and participation in birthright advocacy protests outside of the UN. And though I largely absorbed more than I spoke, similar to the previous day, a number of the films’ stories left me in tears that carried over to my train ride and arrival home as I ruminated over the ongoing hardship faced by those at the center of many of the films’ stories, while also grappling with the thought of those who would never have their stories told or heard. I also mourned that enduring indoctrination made it impossible to viably share that grief and outrage with some of those closest to me. 

Day three, a Friday, was bittersweet, as it marked the end of the festival and a space that had become equal parts familiar and sacred. I greeted a number of now familiar faces by name, often with a smile and some even with hugs. In that way, the festival had fostered a level of intimacy among its attendees. With the room nearly at capacity, many of the the previous two days’ films were replayed, along with the debut of Michèle Stephenson’s Elena and the impromptu additions of Oscar Grullón Cruz’s No me llames extranjero and Retrato Kiskey’ART/Yon pòtre Kiskey’ART

Owing to kismet, Retrato Kiskey’ART/Yon pòtre Kiskey’ART turned out to be the perfect film with which to conclude the festival, on the strength of its message of hope and solidarity. It featured the music of The Azueï Movement, a binational artistic collective that actively aims to promote a culture of peace between Haiti and Dominican Republic in both nations and abroad. The film featured the collective performing at locations on both sides of the island and the logistic, bureaucratic, and societal hurdles they regularly confront. Yet, it also highlighted a dynamic often overshadowed and believed to be all but nonexistent in the face of the ongoing injustice: an extant desire being fostered on both sides for kinship and unity, strengthened by the conscientious sowing of seeds to that end. In essence, the film spoke to another path for the island being actively pursued for present and future generations. And fittingly, Dominicans Love Haitians Movement is also proof of this living ideal. The jubilant aura and infectious music of the film was a palpable breath of fresh air, with many audience members (myself included) dancing in their seats. That energized ambiance spilled over into the celebration that followed with the festival’s closing ceremonies, replete with food, music, and accolades of recognition for contributing filmmakers.

2023 Nou Akoma Nou Sinèrji Film Festival closing ceremonies group photo

2023 Nou Akoma Nou Sinèrji Film Festival closing ceremonies group photo

The festival for me was nothing short of a homecoming. For most of my life, I had been ineffectively attempting to speak to and enlighten others (including loved ones) of the genocide’s detrimental effects and the documented lengths to which the Dominican government has gone to keep its own people complicit and ignorant-an uphill battle I’ve felt alone in. I’ve faced consistent rebuff for this even in spaces that purport to center and underscore such atrocities for the sake of prevention and accountability, my international affairs master’s program at The New School included. 

Resolved to write my graduate thesis on the genocide and its ensuing effects through the lens of Haitian- and Dominican-authored historical fiction (given the general lack of official documentation), I registered for the program’s requisite thesis workshop course ahead of submitting my official proposal. The resistance I faced from the course’s Chinese-American professor, who not only seemed to have no knowledge of the atrocity or the current climate in Hispaniola, but no interest in learning of it, was alarming. Dismissively declaring my chosen topic “irrelevant,” I was instructed to select a new one. In my refusal not to be strong-armed into abandoning my topic, she threatened to fail me, which not only would have prevented me from formally submitting my proposal to the department but from completing the program altogether. After a semester of anguish, uncertainty, and incessant back-and-forth, in the end, she begrudgingly issued me a passing grade, likely the result of sheer fatigue from our prolonged verbal sparring. I would be curious to hear that same professor’s take on the extant legislation (TC168-13) passed by the Dominican government retroactively stripping Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship in 2013, just one year after I graduated and submitted my thesis. I wonder if, in light of such a blatant human rights violation, she would still deem my thesis topic irrelevant. 

Attending Nou Akoma Nou Sinèrji, I at long last felt seen and part of something bigger, a cohort with a concerted and pivotal mission. The birthed and directed films by my cultural brethren were ancestral echoes decrying the rampant injustice and affliction plaguing our island and the diaspora, especially ones that directly referenced the genocide and the disallowance of home (Stateless, Massacre River: The Woman Without a Country, and Elena). 

My maternal grandmother’s line hails from Bánica, a hamlet on the Dominican-Haitian border—a literal stone’s throw between nations only separated by a river that many on either side still traverse daily for the purpose of commerce and livelihood. At the time of the genocide, my grandmother would have been nearly four years old and my great-grandmother (her mother) just 31. Their deaths in my earliest years have deprived me of their words and stories. I’ll never know the inconceivable horrors they witnessed over the course of those six days and nights in October 1937, the neighbors, friends, and kin they saw cut down and violated around them. I’ll never know how they managed to survive, how they undoubtedly feared for their own lives, or the ways in which their very survival no doubt haunted them for what remained of their lives. What I wouldn’t give to be able to sit with and bring them my questions, to hear their invaluable firsthand accounts, to take in their wisdom. Reeling from learning of the genocide on my own, my younger self would have found solace in their words by sheer virtue of the fact that they survived to tell of it. But lamentably, that defining chapter of my family’s history and theirs is long buried with them. So, just as The Farming of Bones did for me all those years ago, the festival’s films provided me with pieces of that history directly linked to my own in the absence of my grandmothers’ voices. 

The festival’s films vividly depicted a great deal of Dominican and Haitian existence, culture, and history, even history many wish remained and arduously work to keep buried. Each film is worthy of being seen and savored, not only in support of the artistry of the filmmaking and the teams that brought the stories to fruition, but also for the messages those stories impart. I walked away with many favorites, but most of all invigorated with renewed resolve. And though the pool of people in my life truly capable of appreciating and understanding the depths of the festival’s indelible mark on me remains sadly limited, it hasn’t lessened its significance. I’m even cognizant that this piece, written to celebrate the festival’s impact and highlight the need for activism, will not be universally embraced or well received. Yet the very existence of such opposition is a testament to just how much said activism is truly needed. 

What Clarivel and Dominicans Love Haitians Movement were able to achieve with the inaugural Nou Akoma Nou Sinèrji Haitian Dominican Transnational Film Festival is nothing short of remarkable. It’s a feat whose ultimate outcomes would have been impossible to forecast or orchestrate: a space of genuine vulnerability and healing; a celebration of Haitian and Dominican art, expression, and culture; a forum for candidly addressing injustice, genocide, and the resulting implications. I only anticipate the festival’s impact and reach growing with each passing year, and I look forward to being in attendance to witness and celebrate that momentous achievement.

Amanda M. Ortiz is a NY-born-and-bred, first-generation Dominican writer. Pursuing degrees in international affairs and Latin American studies sparked a commitment to peacebuilding and remembrance initiatives in societies that have endured genocide (particularly Hispaniola) that has yet to diminish. Her writing is a space of candid cultural, ancestral, and personal reflection previously published by Dominican Writers Association and Spanglish Voces. In addition to Spanish, she is fluent in Portuguese with a deep love for Brasil. Her writing and creative journeys can be found and followed on Instagram: @amopalabras and Twitter: @amo_palabras

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