Review by Sean Boelman
Directed by attorney-turned-filmmaker Michèle Stephenson, Stateless is a new documentary addressing an issue that has received shockingly little coverage to this point. Eye-opening in many ways, Stephenson’s film opens the floor for an important conversation that needs to be held as citizens of the world.
The movie examines the deeply-rooted discrimination that exists within the Dominican Republic, culminating with an order in 2013 that took away citizenship from anyone with Hatian parents, leaving thousands without a nationality or identity. It really is a shame that this story hasn’t received more coverage, as it is absolutely heartbreaking.
Stephenson’s film is at its most effective when it gets up close and personal with the people who are affected most by this crisis. Interviews with Dominicans of Hatian descent are able to communicate the loss and grief being felt by these people. It’s unimaginable to think of this happening to oneself, and these people will easily get the sympathy of the audience.
However, Stephenson also focuses on an attorney running for a seat in the Dominican Republic’s congress, advocating for the people who had their lives stripped away from them. Although it is understandable why Stephenson found interest in this story as an advocate for human rights herself, it is ultimately less compelling than that of the people who have the most to lose.
At times, it starts to feel like the movie is leaning a bit too heavily on emotions, but Stephenson is almost always able to rein her narrative back into her control. There’s an element of poeticism in her approach, and while the film isn’t too subtle with its message, the way in which it is delivered is mostly effective.
Even though this movie is very intimately tied to a particular country and the identity of its people, it touches on themes that are timely and universal. There may be bigger fish to fry at the moment, but there is a lot of division around the world, and this film offers a very scary warning of what that division can ultimately become.
Stephenson is certainly a very talented filmmaker behind the camera, telling the story in an almost impressionistic manner. The cinematography is gorgeous and there is a lot of juxtaposition used between the visuals and subject matter. This shows the stark contrast between the way people like to view the world and the way it actually is.
Stateless would have been a much better documentary had it focused a bit more on the core of the issue, but it’s a mostly riveting watch nevertheless. There is a lot to be learned from this story that seems localized at first glance.
Stateless was set to debut at the cancelled 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.