Director Michèle Stephenson joins the show to discuss her award-winning documentary Stateless. In 1937, tens of thousands of Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent were exterminated by the Dominican army on the basis of anti-black racism. Fast-forward to 2013: the Dominican Republic’s Supreme Court stripped the citizenship of anyone with Haitian parents, retroactive to 1929, rendering more than 200,000 people stateless. Stateless follows the grassroots campaign of a young attorney named Rosa Iris, as she challenges electoral corruption and fights to protect the right to citizenship for all people.
You can check out the transcript below (please be advised transcript may contain typos or errors with less than 100% accuracy)
What’s good everybody. It’s your boy Warren Shaw. And we’re here for another session of dope interviews. Today we are joined by writer and film director, Michelle Stevenson. Michelle, how are you doing?
I’m fine. Thanks. Thank you for having me on your program.
Oh, we we are honored and privileged to have you here. You know, on the dope interviews show, we’ve been doing a lot of stuff in the sports field, we’re doing a lot of stuff in the entertainment and music industry as well too. And to hear and kind of talk to you, this is probably our most serious entry. And I know that we’re having because we’re talking about a pretty deep and integrated topic. So your documentary stateless, um, you know, it hits in a lot of ways and it kind of journeys, I’d say over maybe three or four main characters from what I remember, you know, in the documentary that is kind of intertwined and is some are even on opposite sides. Tell our fans and listeners if you will, just what famous means to you what the film was kind of about what brought you to the project?
Sure, uh, well stateless is a film that looks at the lived experiences of Dominicans of Haitian descent, who lost their citizenship back in 2013. Imagine that you’re born in the United States. And from one day to the next, the Supreme Court decides that the birth certificate you’ve owned all your life is no longer valid, and you have no birthplace, you have no place to call your home your country. But on top of that, you can’t get access to any ID papers that allow you to have a job allow you to go to school allow you to rent to buy a phone, or by telephone service, mobile phone service. And that’s where Dominicans of Haitian descent found themselves back in 2013. And on top of it, the ruling was made retroactive to 1929. So their, their parents and the parents of their parents who had been in the country were also in the same situation. And myself being from the island. I’m of Haitian descent. I was born in Haiti, my dad is Haitian, my mom is Panamanian. And growing up with the mannequins with the culture as part of our culture, but also understanding some of the tensions that exist. I was compelled to sort of explore that story as a filmmaker who’s done a lot of work of documentary film, really looking at personal experiences, but at the heart of the work that I do, and I do also with my partner at our company, Rada studio, is look at how systemic oppression racism affects us on a personal level. And because I have roots in the Caribbean and Latin America, the colorism, pigment autocracy, how that manifests itself, it’s very much has affected my personal life, my parents, my families, as well as understanding that institutionally, you know, we’ve suffered as well with state violence. And so I had a deep connection and felt the need to go and explore the stories and also look at relationships through the personal level of Dominicans and Haitians. And so Rosa 80s, who is the main character in the film, the main participant is Dominican lawyer who is of Haitian descent, and this is her cause her causes to fight for the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent, understanding the depth of internalized oppression that exists, folks that we may think are black, who don’t consider themselves black, and a discriminating against other black people. So it was very important for me to follow her, be inspired by her drive and understand that she is one of many other black women in Dr. Working in this fear. And then there’s also the other side of it, which are the ultra-nationalist right-wing folks that we could compare to, you know, the GOP here or Trump supporters here, it’s the same rhetoric, it’s the same hatred against blackness, the anti-blackness that we see, but the twist is, it’s what we might consider a people we might consider other black folks, right. And that’s how internalized oppression sort of plays out. And white supremacy plays out. Sometimes you don’t need laws to be enforced, you know, with the whip. You just have people who push for it. And in this case, that’s what statelessness is. It’s state-sanctioned anti-blackness is kind of the ultimate expression. You don’t have to kill people anymore. You just need to render them invisible, where they have no access to anything. And you know, Haiti represents a lot for us, being the first successful slave revolt in the Americas, a black Republic unashamedly and it’s paid the price and it’s a constant reminder to the other side of the island of their own blackness and needing to deal with that.
Listen, you know it, when I watched it, it evokes a lot of emotional responses for me, we were talking briefly off air, if you will, to about my, by my background, being Jamaican and kind of growing up around, you know, people of Haitian descent in my neighborhood and seeing how they were treated here. But to be treated like that, me on your island and cut like, that is just it’s it’s bananas, you know and i mean and it’s not even that you know that far long ago like when you when you’re kind of when you’re outlining what happened here what what what kind of brought you to the rose Iris and you know, what was she cool? Yeah, I mean is saying listen, go ahead and fill me as I’m going to me she was running for office and all kinds of stuff was going on in the time that Jake has got to spend some time there with that it was just there’s a lot to this to the story.
For sure. You know, Rosa is, is like the documentary filmmaker’s dream come true in terms of being the storyteller. Um, I met her through some work I’d actually done around the earthquake, I had done a series of digital shorts, looking at how there was a collaboration happening on the island after the earthquake between Haitians and nations and also between young Dominicans and young Haitians that had nothing to do with foreign intervention, but that we were kind of our own sort of saviors in the process. And through that network, when this decision happened, I learned more about the work that Dominicans of Haitian descent were doing to protect their rights and fight for their rights. One organization in particular, like wanna see though, which is based in Santo Domingo, totally run by Dominicans of Haitian descent were connected me to Rosa eras, and she was working in the sugarcane fields at the time, doing legal work, trying to get people to get their papers by whatever means, meaning, there were always some loopholes or ways of at least getting some documentation. So you could least get a job right? Or you could at least register for school, even though it wasn’t total citizenship as you had a right to. And so I met her. And I remember the first day I met her in the small legal office, and then we went off to the sugarcane community. And I guess I fell in love with her spirit. I mean, she was totally open, vulnerable, committed and actually was collaborating with us, and helping us find stories to best exemplify the obstacles that the community faced. So we didn’t know she was going to run for office, she kind of decided in while we were shooting it, like, Oh, we need to follow this, as well. And she was completely open to us having access to the process for her and what it meant for her. I won’t say which way if that she wins or loses, I want people to watch it and tune in on July 19, on the broadcast on PBS,
that’s for sure. Um, listen, without giving too much of it away, I guess in some ways to in, in the campaign trail, though, right? You just see for her, just the layers of corruption, right, that that exist, you know, in places like that, if you will, is like, Alright, well, give me 100 pesos. And I, it, it’s, it’s crazy, because we like we live in the States, right. And we know that there has been voter suppression, and there’s been various ways to try to manipulate certain aspects of things. Right. And to, but to see it, so candidly, I mean, like, in your face, like you guys, were able to capture that like on film and, you know, again, without giving too much away her just emotional responses, you know, to that. They were just so poignant, I think even for me to, like match, because she was like, look where my country is at, like, Look, look at the state of affairs that we’re really in, what was it like, as a filmmaker to kind of see that and know that that was going on? And how that was an effect affecting the person that you were kind of chronicling throughout?
Wow, that’s a great question. I mean, you know, we were emotionally invested in her success as well, you know, I’m really rooting for her in the process, sometimes felt she was kind of naive about what was going on. But there was a bigger purpose, I think, to her, her running the campaign, right? I kind of compare her to sort of AOC she’s our Dominican AOC in terms of really challenging the status quo. And I think that winning or losing was, I mean, winning, of course, would have been great. But the bigger point is that this Dominican woman of Haitian descent from a very humble background, was able to lay a stake on the ground right, was able to occupy space and inspire people in spite of the of the loss that they’re It’s sort of like an incremental sort of pushing that hopefully allows for others to do work if not as candidates, maybe around the voting process or pushing around other elements where there needs to be work that needs to be done. For example, you know, I think Angela Davis says freedom is in the struggle it’s not necessarily the goal you go for the goal but what’s important is the journey right? And what you learn from the journey and what you leave behind in the journey knowing that you know, this is what four or 500 years of oppression that we’re working on that we’re working with and we’re chipping away at it with every prop with every step and you know her and that’s what she exemplifies Rosa erase you know and yeah, I mean the corruption was real and yet she never lost her core integrity which I think says a lot in terms of being an example for others
Yeah, no, I think that’s a great word you know she she she screams and he books integrity you know throughout the process and it’s very easy to kind of watch it and forget it’s real-life No, it’s not made for film or fiction. I mean this real life and real emotions that she was experiencing and going through what she’s on her journey to really just kind of do the right thing for people and your your your intro and conversation about it just again it’s like to almost be made invisible by law. It just it doesn’t even I can’t even comprehend you know that in so many ways Yeah, it was one of the folks that she was she was working with the gentleman with the children you know and I want to say is to to feel Jose you know yeah teofilo you know in his story and how he was treated I think in the office when he was trying to explain I believe if I’m remembering correctly as well to correct me if I’m wrong like the birth certificate of his mother you know any like and the guy was like well i don’t know i don’t care it says this and didn’t and he wouldn’t even let you know to feel good get a word in edgewise about what it was and it was like listen, I’m gonna go back to my phone kicking on my feet I like was really treated like a less than citizen that too was heart wrenching just again I know what you tried to do was captured the real and you and you did but I’m trying to figure out and sorry I’m jumping around a little bit but if I’m the guy in the office and I’m being filmed Why would I be such an asshole
Well firstly those were undercover cameras
ah gosh you
know cameras and that’s the thing is that we would not have been able to capture this if there were like if the cameras were present or we might have been able to but not to the extent of what and so Rosa and they all feel again demonstrated another point of bravery to agree to wholeheartedly and enthusiastically to wear undercover cameras he had a camera on his chest that was specially specially made undercover with the the camera was a button you know that all this gear that I got from this special place to put on him to document that and so this is how people act you know you’re supposed to be serving the public but you’re not you know, you’re you are through the bureaucracy like you’re wielding whatever power you think you may have other over somebody else who’s lesser than you as opposed to providing a service that are you know, the tax people’s tax dollars are paying for including teofilo To this day, he’s contributed to a pension when he was working as a citizen and still does not have access to it well Now they’re taking the citizenship away And so yeah, that’s emblematic the the attitude that of the bureaucratic we sometimes get that in New York but not as harsh bureaucracy, but you know, make you wait and all of that but it’s to the nth degree in a place like Dr. And when you think about where you have where you have so little power to begin with holding a seat in a place like your bureaucracy or a government building where you’re maybe not paid as much as you should be, whoever is going to come to you’re going to squeeze that person you know, you’re gonna you’re gonna wield your power on them and somebody like you’ll feel has very little recourse. I mean, we’ve supported his process to get his papers. And every time somebody there give us a requirement, he meets it and then they give another obstacle and it goes on and on again, it’s like a never-ending, never-ending cycle. So yes, they were on. He was on an undercover camera, as well as the checkpoints that We’ve seen the car where the military stops them all undercover cameras as well. As well as the opening scene where Rosa is in arguing with the other bureaucrat. The woman is also partially undercover. Yeah,
man. We’re talking with Michelle Stevens and writer and film director of stateless this great documentary that you all have got got to see, Michelle. So you did a great job also, as you kind of saw send the outset of trying to make sure that she told the other side. how willing was that other side to be heard and seen? And do they understand the gravity of what you were trying to do? You know, in this documentary?
Well, interestingly enough, we have the burden of choice in terms of the right-wing ultra-nationalist who wanted to tell their story, which is interesting, and I don’t think she never found out that I was Haitian, right, that I was a patient descent that I was born in Haiti. She never asked I think because it’s a place where, you know, I was manipulating my own lights in position. I’m to sort of participate and be part of this circle. And questions, whenever asked of me, one thing that I realized with Gladys, and it’s very important that we know that, you know, she was somebody that we ended up sort of casting for lack of a better word, because she’s a woman. As far as I’m concerned, she is a black woman who spews this hatred in a way that that’s almost sort of unassuming, right? She has this could be my art or my neighbor. There’s something unassuming about her. But when you hear her speak, it’s disarming, right? And so I felt that in that sense, she was sort of a perfect sort of person to follow to tell the story of the other side, we had cast other we had interviewed other people, mostly men, who were so angry and aggressive that I felt for me, and I would assume that even also for audiences, it would be difficult to spend time with that, that they would become caricatures, really, of that movement. So for her it was having her was a lot more significant, I think, in terms of the impact for us, in terms of the obstacle that she represents, that people like Rosa areas in the community have to face. But the interesting thing about her movement her is I had very little few questions to ask. I would ask one question, and she would go on with her perspective. All she wanted to do was get her story out, she knew that I was, you know, talking to other people who didn’t agree. But she was so invested and believed in in her worldview. That she wanted that documented. So she took me around, she you know, as you’ll see, in the film, she took me to certain places to the border, other places, she wanted to show me but what she saw is not what we saw. And so I realized that, you know, these this, this ultra-nationalist right-wing movement is like a belief system, it’s a worldview, it’s a religion, it’s a fanaticism, you can’t convince them. And they’re not interested in being convinced they there’s a self-fulfilling sort of circular logic that you can’t really penetrate. So if we’re gonna make a change, we have to build other narratives and work towards building community with people who are who have you know, who are on the fence or who don’t know, or who need to know more information to be more involved.
Yeah, she says something I can I’m, I can’t quote her even paraphrase it correctly, but it’s almost like, She’s like, oh, how can I be? How can I be racist? I’m a black friend, or some? Yeah. That was like, What? I mean, it was just so what are we talking about right here. So she’s, she’s, again, she’s a very interesting character. And again, I can, I can appreciate the fact that you were intentional about making sure that like that other side is told to kind of see just kind of how, in some ways, I mean, we’ll keep it honest. Like how ridiculous some of the thought processes are kind of what maybe both sides are even kind of fighting, fighting, fighting against.
Yeah, and the level of the hatred that Mercedes and the community are up against, you’re not going to convince these folks are very passionate. It’s about building these other the movement for others, to get them more mobilized, you know, to understand the risks that are there you know, I mean, Rosa areas his life was at risk. Real talk. And she had got asylum here in the United States. So she’s living in Pittsburgh now.
No, no, no. I mean, that stuff was, it was, you know, she’s there with her family or son and stuff like that. Like, it’s, it’s crazy when you see what’s kind of what’s going on and how, how strong that hatred really, truly, truly, truly is. And kudos to you, though, you know, I think for understanding sometimes, sometimes you have to play a role to tell the story. Yeah, I mean, and it’s like, sometimes, like, it’s like, it’s best to just be quiet. Just be the fly on the wall. So and let people kind of just to go off because like, you’re saying she wouldn’t, she didn’t even ask you anything. Like, that’s, that’s crazy to me. I’m not going on any camera. I’m not asking you questions about who you are. I was like, like,
Yeah, well, she asked the bare minimum, but when it was about telling her story, she didn’t, she didn’t need She don’t want to know, even my opinion. She wasn’t interested in my opinion. And, and so you know, I played along with it, as you’re saying, but it was emotionally very draining. after the fact, you know, every time I would spend time with her, there’s so many just, I mean, what you hear is only half of what was discussed. I mean, when I was at dinner, you know, talking with her and her friends, I mean, listening to them. And it was just devastating to hear the level of, of hate of hate of other human beings. And the way you know, the way they would talk about Haitian people and their descendants, and anyway was, so there was, you know, it was I had to process I had to detox in my hotel room, you know, after my time, you know, shooting filming with her. And, you know, the other thing that’s so circular about it is, it doesn’t matter what you’re talking about, it’s because of the Haitians. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. But somehow the discussion is going to end up with, you know, there the reason why this is that there’s that we have this problem. So yeah, it’s,
it’s deep. It truly is. That’s absolutely brutal. Listen, I think, you know, before I let you get out of here, you know, that the documentary is receiving critical acclaim. And I mean, and what we like to do here and dope interview allows people to kind of brag on themselves. Yeah, a little bit. I mean, what of the awards and the nominations and things that are kind of come your way? I know they’re all special and they all mean something. Because when you put your blood and your soul into something like this to you know, what, what was one maybe that was surprising, or the kind of hits you the most hit you and your team, but most of all, like, Man, you know, they really see what we’re trying to do here.
Wow, question, I think yeah, I think there are two moments for me that are emotionally really kind of powerful. One was the award I don’t know if you know, the Black Star Film Festival, but it’s a biopic LED Film Festival by for and about folks of color, black and brown filmmakers, but film and audiences as well. And for me, that meant a lot that I was in community and community was recognizing the work, and that it was helping sort of transform our sense of healing, but building community, it’s Blackstar Film Festival, everybody check it out. It’s a once a year, it’s coming up in August, and it’s in Philadelphia. It’s also virtual have been virtual these last two years, I have a hybrid festival. This is coming August. So for me that really warmed my heart. And I think the next The second thing was actually the screening in Miami that I was talking to you about, again, it was about being in community and it was it this is just the beginning. But we had our screening through the third horizon Film Festival. It was our second in-person screening and the conversations that the film engendered within you know, the Latin x and Caribbean community about colorism, pigment tog, recei, looking at, you know, you know, the light-skinned privilege versus how dark-skinned Dominicans and Haitians are treated. There was a lot of fiery conversation. And I think also in light of what’s been going on within the heights and the criticism around that night, you know, stateless comes as a counterpoint to that, to better understand, you know, our Caribbean communities and, and, and, and what that means and the thing that we have to address, you know, but in a way, you know, through film and storytelling, it, it hits us emotionally on so many levels. I think it allows us to be vulnerable in our conversations to, especially when you see somebody like Rosa is being vulnerable on the screen. We sort of it allows us to go to step up to it. So we have these vulnerable conversations, and I hope to have many more The one in Miami where we can unpack some of these questions that are deeply seated within ourselves.
Listen, I think, like it’s so timely, right? And so it’s one thing, because where we are in kind of the us where we are right now as a society, so to speak, and then you get just kind of snatched back. And as like, it’s not just here, you know that that really like he’s like you said, it’s really powerful. And an invokes definitely a definitive response to kind of one way or the other. I mean, there are people on both sides of that one way, and I’m kind of Sorry, I missed the screening here in South Florida. It’s funny, so I just actually just left New York, ironically. So I’m back here now
The strong thing also about that screening is people started to talk about Miami, and the racism in Miami, the racism in South Florida, you know, between, you know, white Cubans, and patients, Americans and all of that it’s very heated. And when do we have an opportunity to unpack that, from a different perspective, that’s, you know, slightly different, you know, from New York City, or from Chicago, you know, not that those dynamics are not, but there’s a, there’s a there is a Caribbean dynamic to South Florida around how race plays out. And there was a lot of unpacking of that and of regulations, too, that were happening in Miami, that were you know, Jim Crow, like they call him one crow. I think that was Oh, it wasn’t mentioned in a one.
Not the one crow.
Yeah. I mean, that is real. Yeah.
So tell people where you know, what’s next? You know, I mean, you’re coming off, you’re riding this wave right now. But you know how it is. It’s like, oh, David done for me lately. That’s like, that’s our society. So you released this, and this was dope. But like, you know, what’s next? What do you have your eyes set on for your next project?
Well, there are a number of things that are upon the fire. So we just come out of the Tribeca Film Festival and have won an award for a virtual reality project called the changing same and we won Best immersive narrative. And it’s a I call it a magical realist time travel through racial justice in America. So you play with time and looking at connections between the reality of race today versus what was going on, you know, under slavery, and we have two more episodes that we’ll be producing for that it’s a trilogy. And we just won the prize, the Grand Jury Prize at Tribeca for that immersive peace. We have a documentary that is finishing up a biopic on Nikki Giovanni, the poet, I don’t know if you know, her. And she’s from the Black Arts Movement in the late 60s, looking at her poetry. And um, yeah, and the stateless is coming out. So we’ll be broadcast on July 19, on PBS. And yeah, there are other projects in the making, but those are the ones sort of that are sort of rolling out this year.
Well, you are vibing you are, you know, hottest fire and lava right now. And I salute you, you know, for your success and going here and telling the hard stories, that some people are afraid still afraid to tell it and to touch and having these deep level conversations that consistently need to be had on a more regular basis to other people where they can find you on social media. Yeah, I mean, in any in any plugs that you need to give out your to our folks here on dope interviews.
Sure. I’m on Instagram at Michelle underscore. Oh 608 and our studio is rotta studio and yc on Instagram and Twitter, and Facebook. So um, please come on and sign on to our newsletter. You can get on our loose nailer through our website, which is Radha studio.org. We have a monthly newsletter that we print that we launch out
For folks. I’m gonna go ahead and sign up right now. And I want to thank you for joining us here. Michelle Stephenson, Michelle Stephenson, for all of our fans and listeners. You have now been tuned for another dope interview. Thank you so much for joining us and shell continued success to you and we’ll catch you next time don’t let’s don’t be a stranger. We got to catch up with all your dope projects.
I want to thank you so much, Warren.