JOSE MARIA CABRAL
”Being overwhelmed was part of the writing, I needed that heat to portray the prison as it is. I think every element and every situation I saw and was part of, was the key to finding and portraying the universe of the story.” – Jose Maria Cabral
Interview by Ms. Yubo Fernández
Image (above) from Variety, courtesy Tabula Rasa Films
Cult Critic’s Yubo Fernández had an opportunity to speak with filmmaker José María Cabral, Director of “Woodpeckers”, Official Selection at Sundance Film Festival for 2017. The film tells the story of Julián, who finds love and a reason for living in the last place imaginable: the Dominican Republic’s Najayo Prison. His romance, with fellow prisoner Yanelly, must transcend the distance that separates them, by using a sign language created by the inmates in Najayo, called Woodpecking, enabling them to effectively communicate and develop personal and even intimate relationships without the knowledge of dozens of guards.
Here’s a candid Q & A, revealing a deeper narrative from Mr. Cabral himself, as he shares his experiences filming behind bars and what it means to be a Dominican filmmaker and winning acclaim at one of the world’s premier international film festivals.
Ms. Fernández: How did you find out about the “Woodpecking” (language created by the inmates in Najayo Prison, to communicate? (carpinteros means woodpeckers in Spanish.)
Jose Maria Cabral: A friend who teaches at the prison told me that many students skipped classes because they were talking through a window. Since I heard that I knew there was something interesting, and a couple days later I arranged a visit to Najayo prison. Seeing it with me eyes and interviewing the inmates was enough to convince me I and to explore this as a film.
Q: Since you had to shoot the film at the prison for 4 weeks and deal with real prisoners which you also used as actors, were you, the cast or the crew at risk at any time?
A: Most of the time we were fine. They were very protective and supportive of the project. There were some situations that got out of our hands, and we needed help from the police, and in a rare occasion I had to intervene in a fight between inmates to secure my main actor.
Q: To develop the script you had to visit the prison almost everyday for about 9 months; in a place with eight thousand condemned individuals from different backgrounds with sad and interesting stories, plus very precarious conditions: How did you manage to keep focused on writing about the Wood-pecking and not be overwhelmed by the situation that surrounded you?
A: Being overwhelmed was part of the writing, I needed that heat to portray the prison as it is. I think every element and every situation I saw and was part of, was the key to finding and portraying the universe of the story.
Q: This film affected you emotionally in some way?
A: Yes, Sometimes I still dream about the prison, and there was this one night after the shooting were I couldn’t sleep, I burst out crying thinking about everything we were exposed too and the conditions those inmates lived.
Q: I particularly admire filmmakers who develop a story respecting the creativity and human side of the cinematography, what do you think this film will transmit to the audience?
A: We wanted to be very raw, using handheld, many natural lights and almost no manipulation to the sets, in some way we wanted people to think it was a documentary.
Q: Is the love story in this film based on a real relationship that occurred in Najayo Prison?
A: Not on one specific, but on many. I gathered up many love stories from the inmates and merged them into one.
Q: Sundance Film Festival is a huge platform for any filmmaker, but it’s hard to be in the official selections, what do you think made Woodkeepers to win the spot?
A: It’s a movie made with courage and heart, its truthful to the audience and respects, values the human being. I didn’t want to do a moral view of the prisoners, that’s not my job, my job was to rescue the light that we all have inside us, regarding what you’ve done in the past.
Q: The Dominican Republic film industry is growing due to great talent and the new film law that encourages domestic and foreign investment in the industry. Was “Woodpeckers” supported by this law?
A: Yes, it’s an amazing law that permits filmmakers to discover local stories and make them universal in some way. It’s about sharing part of our culture to the world.
Q: The main actors Jean Jean (Julian) and Judith Rodriguez (Yanelly) are well known for their preparation and talent. How was the chemistry between them due to the intensity of their characters and conditions of the location – and why you chose them for the roles?
A: Amazing, they are very talented and responsible actors. Working with them was great. They were compromised to the project since the first pitch. I know the conditions we shot this film were not the best, but they kept their head high and gave their best. I’m so proud of all my actors.
Ms. Fernández: Finally what are your expectations with the film after the premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2017 this January?
Jose Maria Cabral: I tend not to expect anything, love when things come as a surprise. Of course I’ll be working very hard to get the best out of the festival, but I rather let the things take their own paths, as Woodpeckers has done so far.
“Twelve films from emerging filmmaking talents around the world offer fresh perspectives and inventive styles. “Carpinteros” (Woodpeckers); Dominican Republic Director and screenwriter: Jose Maria Cabral.” Sundance.org
Yubo Fernandez is an Actress, Writer, Producer, Director and the Founder and President of Obuy Films. She lived in NYC, attended Atlantic Film School Workshops and returned to study cinematography at Santo Domingo’s Altos de Chavon School and studied under Claude Kerven, Chair of the Filmmaking Department at New York Film Academy. “How Do We kill Luisa”, “Peldanos de Dolor” and “Constanza” are three films that she’s produced. Yubo is also featured in several films from the Dominican Republic.