Jean Jean: The New Face of Latin American Cinema

Jean Jean won this year’s Best Ibero American Actor Award at the Guadalajara International Film Festival for his starring role in the Dominican film Carpinteros. He also made his directorial debut with the documentary Si Dios quiere, Yuli, already a winner at several regional festivals. Where did this up-and-coming filmmaker come from? Learn the story behind his success.

Text and Photos: Roberto Quintero

Jean Jean arrived at the International Film Festival of Panama grinning from ear to ear. He had every reason to be happy. Not only did he have two films in the festival –no mean feat– but just two weeks earlier he’d won the coveted Best Ibero American Actor Award at the Guadalajara International Film Festival for his starring role in the Dominican film Carpinteros. He is the first actor from the island of Hispaniola to have garnered such international recognition, earned for his performance in his first starring role after fifteen years of playing supporting roles.

He is the face of the film that promises to be the greatest cinematic success in the Dominican Republic this year. Indeed, Carpinteros, a prison love story directed by José María Cabral, has just been released commercially in the D.R. to great critical and commercial acclaim.

The film had its world premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival where it became the first film from the island to be selected for the official competition. In addition to the previously mentioned award, Carpinteros won the Special Jury Prize and the Maestro Goldenblank Award (awarded by the Latin America Federation of Image and Sound Academies) in Guadalajara. Cabral also took Best Director at the New York Havana Film Festival.

While it was this unusual notoriety that made me aware of Jean Jean’s existence, I was actually interested in talking with him about the other film he was promoting in Panama, his opera prima as a director: Si Bondye vle, Yuli. The documentary explores a Haitian woman’s dramatic attempts to regularize her immigration status after living for more than thirty years as an illegal immigrant in the Dominican Republic. I was most intrigued by the fact that the protagonist is the director’s own mother; he was the reason she decided to cross the border in search of a better life.

Modest and simple but vital and tremendously human, the film doesn’t just portray the conflict; it also explores universal themes such as the mother-child bond, immigrants’ relationship with their new home, and the genuine solidarity and brotherhood that exists among human beings, extending beyond borders and nationalities and giving the drama a hopeful perspective. The young filmmaker, who graduated from the International School of Cinema and Television of San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, won Best Documentary for his film at festivals in Martinique and Trinidad and Tobago (where he also won Amnesty International’s Human Rights Prize) and at the Caribbean Tales Festival in Toronto.

Son of No Man’s Land

Jean Jean was born on September 12, 1980 in a place called Eau Hondo, a small community in the municipality of Tomassique, Central Department, in the Cerca la Source region. “It’s in Haiti, but close to the border with the Dominican Republic. So close it’s considered part of a strip popularly known as No Man’s Land. That’s where I come from.”

He moved onto Dominican soil at the age of three and began performing very organically soon after. “It was very funny. I remember I liked to imitate the Dominican comedians on television from a very early age. My mother would watch me imitate them and laugh her head off, saying that sooner or later I was bound to end up on TV. Those words are magical in the childhood of any human being, because they offer total freedom. And they’ve stayed with me all my life.” Talking about his mother moves him visibly and he wastes no time in clarifying that she is one of the pillars of his life. “She was the first person to make me feel good about acting. She’s a very noble woman and has been important in keeping my heart filled with love.”

Despite his innate vocation and family support, he had to wait to become an actor. After finishing high school, he moved from Las Matas de Farfán in the province of San Juan de la Maguana to the city of Santo Domingo to study civil engineering. “It was a career choice that would guarantee me a job, or at least that was what my guardian and godfather Felifran told me.” It was not to be, however, for the same reason that had been a constant obstacle from the time he came to the Dominican Republic. “Because of my precarious immigration status, if I’d wanted to study economics, political science, or engineering, I would have had to pay tuition as a foreigner, in dollars, and it would have been too expensive. So I was unable to study at a university. I sat in for two semesters on civil engineering classes, because I really wanted to study, but I got tired of it.”

Soon after, he received a sign that reconnected him with his old desire to act. He spotted an announcement in the newspaper about an acting laboratory that was opening at the National School of Dramatic Arts (ENAD), to be directed by Ángel Haché, one of the Dominican Republic’s great actors and theatrical directors. “Something transformational happened.” Following the sign, he went to the school to register, terrified that he’d be rejected. Fortunately, after he explained his situation, both the director of the academy and Haché himself assured the young aspirant that art knew no nationalities or borders. “And that’s how I began my higher education. I will be eternally grateful to them.”

From 2001 to 2003 he studied at the ENAD. Then, under the guidance and direction of his teacher, Ángel Haché, he and several other graduates founded the Grupo de Teatro Orgánico (still active). There, Jean Jean staged well-reviewed political works. After that, he slipped gradually into the Dominican Republic’s incipient film industry, landing supporting roles in films like Los locos también piensan (Humberto Che Castellanos), La cárcel de la victoria (José Enrique Pintor), Viajeros (Carlos Bidó), Ladrones a domicilio (Ángel Muñiz), Hermafrodita (Albert Xavier), and La soga (Josh Crook).

“By 2007 I’d already made about nine films, and all this before the Cinema Act came into force in 2010. At the time I began to feel boxed into roles that I felt didn’t allow me to develop as an individual. I was forced to play Dominicans, which I think is okay because I’m a Dominican too, or I’d play Haitians or a Haitian pretending to be a Dominican, or vice versa. Eventually I realized that I’d have to move behind the camera to break free.” His career then took another direction: he went to Cuba to study documentary filmmaking, following the advice and support of Dominican filmmaker Tanya Valette, who graduated from the school and became the first female director of the mythical San Antonio de los Baños School.

He spent seven years outside the D.R. –three studying in Cuba and the rest in Canada, thanks to an EICTV exchange project with Concordia University in Montreal. He returned to the Dominican Republic in 2015 and since then has been reaping the fruits of his determination to become an artist and his good fortune to have met key people along the way who supported his talent. “Since 2015, I’ve had the immense fortune to work on seven films, and two of them are here at the festival in Panama, with nine awards already under their belt.”

Jean Jean’s immigration status remains precarious, as does his mother’s. Their legal nonresident status –obtained through participation in the National Plan for Regularization of Foreigners two years ago– will expire soon. When I ask what happens next, he answers: “One battle at a time, brother. For now, I’ll be in Santo Domingo, acting in a play about this very issue of Haitian migration.” The play is called En la soledad de Tierra de Nadie (The Loneliness of No Man’s Land) and was adapted from an original play called The Loneliness of the Cotton Fields by French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltès. The show, premiering this month, is a production of the Teatro de los Oficios Theater Company. And despite the uncertainty, I can’t think of a more hopeful outcome to the story of this boy who is living proof that art is capable of transcending borders.