Film Review: Carpinteros (Woodpeckers)
HAVANA FILM FESTIVAL NEW YORK 2017
CARPINTEROS (WOODPECKERS) (2016) DIR. JOSÉ MARÍA CABRAL
By Belle McIntyre
This unlikely docu/drama from Dominican Republic directed by José María Cabral was screened at Sundance in January and takes place in the notorious Najayo Prison in the Dominican Republic. The filming takes place in that very prison and uses actual prisoners as extras. The authenticity quotient is amazing and visceral as we find ourselves in a facility designed to house 2000 which at the time of filming was home to 8000 inmates. It is hot, decrepit and seething with humanity.
The story involves a love triangle between a long-term inmate, Manaury, a volatile, menacing bully who has achieved widespread control over the inmate population through brutish tactics involving, beatings, extortion, bribery, smuggling and a network of minions and spies all over the prison reporting back to him, and his girlfriend, Yanelli, who is an inmate in the women’s prison 200 yards away across a concrete yard. The third party is Julian, a new inmate who has the stature and quiet dignity of Mahershi Ali in Moonlight. After his initiation into the system he figures out how to insinuate himself into the hierarchy and gains the trust of Manaury.
At one point each day the women come outside for their exercise and are visible to the male inmates. The male and female prisoners have developed an ingenious and highly-sophisticated method of communication using sign language. The men who know the language (Woodpeckers) line up along a wall with open bars and reach their arms through them to signal to the women who are outside exercising. They are each communicating specifically to one person with whom they express personal feelings, hopes and dreams. In most cases they have never met in person. This is their only contact and they express a world of emotional content. They woo, cajole, flirt, fight, break up, make up and have a remarkably full, rich range of passionate communication. They behave in the same ways that couples who actually have physical contact with one another, with tenderness, jealousy, possessiveness, anger and, unfortunately, sometimes violence.
In a strange way it is not so different from the courting rituals of online dating and sexting between people who have never met. Except in this case the language is visually way more subtle and evocative. When Julian is tasked by Manaury to become his messenger, things take a dangerous turn. All I will reveal is that a genuine love relationship develops in spite of impossible odds, one that transcends the imaginary ones which are passing for the real thing in a place of impossible inhumanity.
What is portrayed so palpably is the creativity and ingenuity that can be brought to bear in conditions of hyper-deprivation as a hedge against despair and surrender. The overwhelming need for love and human connection drives this story and makes the characters feel genuine and inspires our empathy and compassion.
The actors are terrific and totally believable and the scenes of prison riots are filmed with extraordinary fluidity. The sound track, mostly percussion, underscores the mood and helps to build momentum. It is a remarkable subject for a film, but the director has obviously found a fascinating vehicle to tell a very human story and done it very well, indeed.