José María Cabral went to prison nearly every day for almost a year. The prisoners called him el preso libre, the free prisoner. He did live some elements of the prison life — the smell, the overpopulation, the limited access to food and water. But mostly it was art, not the law, that held him to the world of incarceration as he filmed his Sundance-premiered movie, Carpinteros (Woodpeckers). Cabral turned the cells into the set and cast guards and prisoners as his actors.
The 28-year-old is now on his fifth feature film and has already had one of his flicks, Jaque Mate!, sent to the Oscars as the Dominican Republic’s nominee. Carpinteros was one of 12 films chosen for the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance, and Cabral was the only Caribbean representative.
José Cabral Sr. brags of his son’s work: “authentic, with a story to tell and a message to deliver.”
Cabral’s body of work is mixed so far, including drama and comedy, with little through line between the work. Jaque Mate! (Checkmate!) tells the story of a Caribbean game show host, whose show is the eponymous Jaque Mate. It’s got a hint of Black Mirror in it — in the middle of the show, the host receives a call warning his family has been kidnapped. Drama, naturally, ensues. Carpinteros focuses on the prisoners like those with whom Cabral shacked up while filming — in an all-male Dominican jail, a few men manage to communicate with female prisoners across the way by “woodpecking.” Certain taps mean “Want to sleep together, end up together and ride off into the sunset?” Others mean “I want to talk to you.” There’s an almost documentarian aesthetic to the finished product. At one romantic moment in the film, a female prisoner holds a sign asking a man in the prison across the way to marry her — and the prop is real, scavenged from a prison, given by one of his interview subjects.
“For a long time, most things out of the D.R., especially things that get to the U.S. or festivals, tended to be more romantic comedies and lighter stories aimed toward the mainstream,” says Carlos Aguilar, film journalist for the Latin culture magazine Remezcla, Indiewire and others. “[Cabral’s] different from other filmmakers because he focuses on more intimate personal stories.”
Cabral’s emerging at a time when his compatriots are trying to edge along a kind of Dominican artistic renaissance. The government in Santo Domingo recently began providing financial incentives for studios, native filmmakers and local production companies to film in the country, in hopes of increasing job opportunities. This is a real shift, says Enrique Avila Lopez, professor of Spanish culture at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. “Apart from Cuba, Caribbean cinema does not really exist in comparison to other Latin American countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina.” The country doesn’t lack for cultural capital, but it has little history of film schools or resources.
Born in Santo Domingo, Cabral was raised upper middle class — Oscar de la Renta is a distant relative. He enjoyed private education and could afford to dream of a career in art. One day on set for Carpinteros, he says, he broke down — partly due to heat exhaustion, but mostly, he says, because he couldn’t stop thinking that only a few choices separated him from the people behind bars, many of whom were in prison for crimes he describes as the stuff one does to feed oneself.
Cabral, who resembles an American Apparel model with the blond highlights in his hair and an earring, seems, in person, far from such worlds. He initially chose acting in high school, admiring the physical comedy of Jim Carrey. At 16, Cabral filmed his first feature with friends. It told the story of teens partying and living a drug-filled fantasy in Santo Domingo, a microcosm of the wealthy and carefree. That film, Excesos, premiered in local theaters, though he says it was terrible compared to the grittier Carpinteros. A subsequent short film garnered attention from producers, who then backed Jaque Mate!
Cabral’s father, an attorney, was strict despite his son’s artistic ambitions. “He was like, ‘You have to do math or science,’” Cabral says. But his grades were weak, and eventually his father gave in. Today, the elder Cabral has pulled a 180, helping his son amass the slim $300,000 budget on which Carpinteros was filmed. José Cabral Sr. brags of his son’s work: “authentic, with a story to tell and a message to deliver.”
Not everything’s been successful. Cabral is experimenting to see what sticks in the D.R. Some attempts have fallen flat — a sci-fi comedy that couldn’t garner distributors; a detective comedy with big-name actors that was poorly received, he says. In 2015, he stepped back from comedy and turned to Carpinteros. He still draws on eclectic influences — Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock, plus a medley of Dominican filmmakers: Yanillys Perez, Laura Amelia-Guzmán, Ernesto Alemany.
After a journey to find the type of movie he wants to make, Cabral now claims, in part, to speak for the Dominican Republic and to speak to the Dominican Republic. “For me it was important to show the other world,” he says — the world of social issues and prisons in the D.R. The sign language of his characters in Carpinteros would even surprise natives. Dominican jails, he says, are “like a whole other island.”
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