One of the most fascinating trends in cinema is how unconnected filmmakers can be coincidentally inspired to create work that is strikingly similar. Sometimes it’s the case of competing biopics, or it can be topical films exploring an important social issue. Such a phenomenon is revealed at the 2021 Pan African Film Festival, where a pair of noteworthy films explored the legacy of anti-Black sentiments in Latin America, from complementary fictional and non-fiction approaches.
You’ve probably heard of bigots using the phrase “go back to Africa!” as in insult towards Black people. But what if a “back to Africa” campaign became law? In Lazaro Ramos’ gripping thriller Executive Order, a dystopian Brazilian government implements such a policy, forever changing the course of the South American nation.
The setting is an unspecified time in the near future, when reconciliation for the wrongs of slavery is the hot topic of the moment. The government has thus decided to issue financial reparations to the Black population, a feat that is set to be commemorated in a public handover to the first recipient, an 80-year old woman. With the world and media eagerly watching, a shocking reversal takes place however, as the government rescinds the offer. When optimistic lawyer Antônio (Alfred Enoch) proceeds to sue the government, they decide to respond with entirely different, draconian approach. Black citizens are encouraged to repatriate to the African country of their ancestors, with the incentive of a fully paid ticket and basic living support upon arrival. But soon, this supposedly generous voluntary offer becomes an executive order, authorizing the mandatory deportation of every Brazilian with African heritage.
We enter this dystopia through the eyes of Antônio and Andre, a patriotic duo of young Black men who are blissfully comfortable in their middle class life. Adopting their easy-going attitude, Executive Order thus begins as droll satire, as the friends join others who mock the absurdist repatriation campaign. Indeed, the script flexes a sharp sense of humor, most amusingly when various opportunistic white people step up to claim Blackness and take advantage of a free holiday.
With an abrupt change of tone, however, the situation becomes no laughing matter. And the social commentary thus delves into the more sinister aspects of this racist policy. Though the public discourse replaces derogatory words for Black people with “high melanin,” audiences will quickly began to recognize the dog whistles and gaslighting common to right wing political interests. And as tensions quickly escalate – with the aid of genre film aesthetics like fast cutting – the film therefore becomes both a heart-pounding and disquieting cautionary tale about the vulnerability of societies to repeat systemic injustices.
Indeed, what makes Executive Order so effective is its frightening plausibility. As the events unfold, it brilliantly uses the specificity of its Brazilian context, referencing the historic quilombos in crafting its resistance plot. Admittedly, Ramos pulls some punches in this regard, suggesting a pacifism that feels unsupported by reality. But Executive Order’s ultimately hits home with its visceral depiction of an intolerant society that feels all too familiar.
While Executive Order speculates on a hypothetical dystopia, Michèle Stephenson’s Stateless proves that the future is now. Stephenson turns her camera towards a controversial decision made in 2013, whereby the Dominican Republic’s government decided to revoke the citizenship of nationals with Haitian parents. As it tells the story of the 200,000 who were suddenly rendered stateless, this sobering documentary puts a spotlight on a shameful human rights violation.
Stateless follows Rosa Iris, an attorney and advocate who has dedicated her life to helping the people affected by the ruling. As she travels throughout both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, she learns firsthand the struggle of those whose lives and families have been torn apart. Among them is her own cousin Teofilo, who is forced to rebuild his life in Haiti, while his children remain in Dominican Republic. Determined to advocate from a more influential position, Rosa decides to run for congress. But a rising nationalist movement puts her campaign and personal safety in danger.
Indeed, the atmosphere is rife with tension, as racism is heard and seen throughout Stateless. Stephenson’s keen eye observes the rising nationalism through reports of physical violence and vocal protests by those in favor of the policy, in addition to offensive graffiti littered throughout the streets. Meanwhile, these elements are juxtaposed with Rosa’s passion and humanity, through which she attempts to positively influence her family and the rest of the society.
But Stephenson wisely focuses the antagonistic view not on the overtly racist and uneducated, but on the otherwise respectable figures of civilized society. Most notably, she garners the perspective of a privileged woman named Glades, who is a leading member of the nationalistic movement. As Glades indulges in harmful rhetoric about Haitians being rapists and murderers in both public and private discussions, it’s a chilling reminder that bigotry is not only the domain of the ignorant and uneducated. And while we see clips of the President defending the policy, Stephenson skillfully weaves in an elegiac fable that indirectly comments on his stance by reminding us of the country’s genocidal past.
Stateless is ultimately an indictment of the consequences of poor leadership and corrupt politics. In doing so, it avoids faux optimism for an honest depiction of Dominican Republic’s broken democracy. Despite highlighting the efforts of progressive-minded individuals like Rosa, Stephenson shows an intimate understanding of the susceptibility of vulnerable citizens to the influence of power-hungry leaders. But Stateless is not defeatist. In giving a voice to the stateless, it sends a strong and vital message that the world needs to hear.