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Race, Class and Gender in the Dominican Republic: a thought piece on 'Miriam Lies' (2018)

Two girls swim playfully in the pool. It’s nothing particularly extraordinary. Not even when one asks the other not to wet her hair. It’s not an unusual thing to say, after all. As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that while for one girl this is just a game, for the other, it is the main source of her mother’s discontent. For titular character, Miriam, her own ‘frizzy’ hair is a sign of her difference: her friends constantly fiddle with her tight curls, while her mum remarks on the need to “make her hair look beautiful”. Many films have explored before how afro hair poses a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘fixed’ within eurocentric, post-colonialist society (Troy’s character in Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (1994), for example), and as such, it remains a site of resistance, as effectively portrayed in Aisha Sanyang-Meek’s First Acts short Hairatage (2016). Throughout the film, directors Natalia Cabral and Oriol Estrada unapologetically make clear the ubiquity of racism in the Dominican Republic. Miriam (Dulce Rodríguez) is a mixed-race girl whose middle-class background grants her special treatment from other Dominicans. Together with her best friend Jennifer (Carolina Rohana), from an upper-middle class family, she prepares for their lavish quinceañera (a Latin American coming-of-age ceremony that celebrates a girl’s 15th birthday, when she is traditionally presented to society, marking her transition to womanhood) to much of Tere (Miriam’s mother)’s delight. When Tere learns that Miriam is chatting with a so-called Jean-Louis (the son of a French diplomat) she rejoices in the idea of her daughter dating a white, European man. That her love interest is in fact a black Dominican results in Miriam’s lies: the more her mother yearns to meet him, the more Miriam feels the need to conceal his identity.

Miriam Lies is the third film by directing duo Natalia Cabral and Oriol Estrada. After graduating from the prestigious EICTV Cuban Film School, the pair went on to direct the documentaries You and Me (2014), which depicts the intimate but hierarchical relationship between a white widower and her black maid, and Site of sites (2016), detailing the construction of an artificial beach by the Dominican working class for the profiteering tourist industry. Throughout these films, the directors continue to demonstrate nuanced explorations of racial and class tensions that permeate Dominican society. This is present throughout Miriam Lies, and is particularly explicit in the relationship between Miriam and her uncle, who approves that she dates a white boy as this will “fix the race”, only to express genuine affection for his niece later on in the film, by singing intimately to her on her birthday. These contradictions in treatment can be uneasy to witness as a spectator, however - as the directors note- whenever they have shown their films in the Caribbean island, the Dominican response has been “what is the problem?” Such is their everyday life.

The film originates from a memory of Natalia Cabral who, as a young girl, reacted in a similar way to that of the character of Miriam after finding out the skin colour of a boy she had met online. The director admits surprise at her own past behaviour and felt that in order to talk about the problems of the Dominican society, one needs to practice some form of “self-criticism”. Cabral and Estrada wrote the script together using this experience as a starting point. The fact that Oriol Estrada is not Dominican but from a small town near Barcelona wasn’t detrimental to the story; on the contrary, as Cabral acknowledges his “outsider” perspective and subsequent curiosity and sensitivity for the Dominican Republic helped the script achieve a broader perspective. Not only is their mutual understanding and skill in collaborative practice reflected in a masterful script, but also in directorial accomplishment, which is clearly visible in the two compelling performances by first time actors Dulce Rodríguez and Carolina Rohana. For the directors it was clear that the story had to measure with personal experiences to be strong enough to work, and after three months of research and castings, they found actors who shared similar traits with their characters, (especially Dulce Rodríguez who, upon reading the script commented, “I am Miriam”). Cabral and Estrada spent the following nine months meeting with the girls- strangers to each other before the start of the film- helping them to form a bond through the practice of improvisational games. Some of those improvisations became integrated within the film- resulting in poignant demonstrations of intimacy and spontaneity. Alongside the astute portrayal of racial tensions, gender expectations experienced by Dominican girls are also explored. In one scene, for example, during preparation for the quinceañera, the girls are asked to try fancy dresses, learn a choreography and, of course, find a partner. As exciting as all this attention may be for a teenage girl, the directors interrogate the problematic, gendered roots of the tradition itself. Miriam Lies shows the weight of toxic masculinity throughout the Dominican Republic, and the suffocating atmosphere within which girls are forced to live: exposed to impossible beauty standards from TV programmes, to stifling family remarks- indicative of an ingrained patriarchal system. Although, of course, this is not exclusive to the Dominican Republic, it seems to be fuelled by the country’s conservative society, inherited from 30 years of dictatorship. Cabral, a Dominican herself, confirms that both home and school education are still based on blind obedience to authority, making it hard for young people to find their own identity. Girls are brought up to carry very traditional lifestyles, dedicated to their husband and children. As bleak as this scenario might seem, the film’s focus on a close female friendship makes this a luminous portrayal of a younger generation of women, ready to challenge the status quo. Miriam’s taciturn character is not passive; rather, through seemingly ‘small’ acts of teenage rebellions she takes a stand against daily oppressions. This is most notable in her eventual decision to invite Jean-Louis to the party- a rhythmically-shot sequence, where tensions rise by the second. The fact that Tere’s ex-husband is a black man whom she married against her father’s will poses questions about Tere’s own ‘disobedient’ past and her subsequent articulation of the racism she encountered as a young woman.

The film ends on a bittersweet tone: a shared moment of complicity between friends that leaves us pondering whether Miriam will submit to societal pressures or continue to strive. When asked about the effect of the #metoo movement in her country, Cabral affirms that it has made an impact in the Dominican Republic , but that feminism is still envisioned as a way to satisfy the individual needs of the upper classes. She explains that the middle-class Dominican woman is very much aware of the weight of keeping a work-life balance and highlights the lack of support from their male counterparts. Many of these women, however, consider themselves feminists while transferring household chores to working-class women, (usually from rural areas and some of them illiterate)- something that, quite obviously does not reflect notions of intersectional solidarity between women. Despite the harsh realities it portrays, the more abstract sequences that foreground classic Latin ballads, alongside critical illustrations of the quinceañera celebration, all serve to comment on underlying, socio-cultural conflicts. Framing the subject matter as a coming-of-age story, the film appeals to widespread audiences, while its thoughtful treatment of the intersections of race, class and gender bring us closer to understanding a country the Western world often demonstrates shamefully little knowledge of. Miriam Lies feels particularly relevant for today’s urgent conversations around representation on screen, and it comes as a breath of fresh air among the many stories lacking any interest in showing the diversity of experiences globally, particularly from a young female perspective.

Words by Amaya Bañuelos Marco

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