Death by a Thousand Cuts is a new and visceral documentary about the violent struggles along the border of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Filmmakers Juan Mejia Botero and Jake Kheel examine the disputes along the contentious piece of land by focusing on the murder of a Dominican ranger and the illegal charcoal business that is decimating the area’s forests.
The decision to tell this complex tale by focusing on community members most affected by the issues is a good one. The statistics are relegated to helpful facts at the beginning and end of the documentary. Other than those brief moments to provide perspective, Death by a Thousand Cuts is personal and family based.
The murdered ranger went by the name Melaneo. His family, especially his forsaken brother Chichi, are distraught by his death and seek answers. Melaneo’s job on the border was to stop illegal charcoal ovens that are eating away at the Dominican Republic’s natural resources.
The fight to stop the deforestation is an obvious one. A viewer only has to look at the dividing line between Haiti and the Dominican Republic to see a clear before-and-after shot. On the Haiti side, there are almost no trees; it’s a barren land that has been taken advantage of for too long. On the Dominican side, there are still trees and evidence of the country’s world-renowned greenery; however, the constant chopping of wood threatens that biodiversity.
The film, running a quick 74 minutes, documents not only Melaneo’s brother’s quest for answers but also his widow’s struggle as a Haitian immigrant living in the Dominican Republic. At the time of her husband’s death, the country is undergoing radical social change, and national movements are gaining momentum to kick out undocumented Haitians. Calina, Melaneo’s wife, certainly has a sad story to tell. Other than losing her husband to a machete attack, she’s also facing a problem with her immigration status. She has children in her house and is unsure what her next step should be if the authorities come knocking on the door.
Some of the underlying issues in the film should feel familiar to the peoples of the world. Issues surrounding borders, security, jobs and poverty are universal.
Perhaps a drawback of the documentary is that, even with a focus on Melaneo’s case, there’s too much information to process in 74 minutes. Is this an environmental story? Is this a murder mystery? Is this an issue of poverty? Is this an issue of national politics? Of course, the answer is “all of the above,” but that’s a lot of ground to cover in so short of time.
Still, there are powerful scenes in the gripping documentary, and certain images linger for quite some time. The filmmakers visit a shaman who expounds on the circumstances of Melaneo’s death. Chichi visits a governmental office and is shuffled between offices like a Kafka-esque bureaucracy scene. The directors also visit with Dr. Yolanda Leon who is documenting the deforestation and trying to curb the illegal charcoal production.
Death by a Thousand Cuts is a powerful film that tells a personal story with universal consequences. For the casual viewer, this may seem like a small story, a uniqueness between two countries, one of which is still trying to recover from a natural disaster. However, what happens in and around the charcoal ovens in the forests of the Dominican Republic and among the impoverished communities of Haiti should speak loudly to an international audience.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Death by a Thousand Cuts (2016), from directors Juan Mejia Botero and Jake Kheel, recently played the African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York City. Rating: Click here for more information on the documentary. Running time: 74 minutes