The Dominican Republic was in the building for this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, as the boxing drama film, Samba, premiered, becoming the first film from Quisqueya to ever premiere at the famed New York City film fest.
With so many films in the boxing genre that came before it, Sambá comes with an intriguing twist … a Caribbean twist—giving the audience a front-row seat to not only the boxing scene in the Dominican Republic, but also, to life on the more gritty streets of the paradisiacal island, as well as a look into the lives of the many individuals who, due to unfortunate circumstances, are sent back to lands that they barely know to practically start life all over again. Written by Etorre D’Alessandro and Carolina Encarnacion, and directed by Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán, Sambá tells the story of Cisco – played by Algenis Pérez Soto – who, after doing a 15-year stint in prison in the United States, is deported to his native land of the Dominican Republic. Having a tough time finding stable work due to his checkered past, Cisco ventures into illegal street fighting where he meets an Italian ex-boxer named Nichi – played by D’Alessandro – who not only sees great potential in Cisco, but also, a big payoff—taking Cisco from street fights to the boxing ring.
‘LLERO recently spoke with the film’s directors, Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, about their work on Sambá, the film’s cast members, the Tribeca Film Festival, where Sambá will go next, as well as the directors’ other film work.
‘LL: How did you both get involved with the production of the film?
Laura: We were both invited to direct them. The producers had seen our previous films, and so they decided that they wanted us to direct it. We had never done any directing for other people before. We have always directed the films we have written. This was the first time we were given a script. We definitely liked it—especially the part about a failed foreigner trying to make a living in the D.R. We had a couple of months to rewrite the script and make it ours. We worked together with the producers on the casting, and that’s how we got it done.
‘LL: We also saw that you worked with Laura Gomez from Orange is the New Black for this film. We love Laura! What was it like working with her?
Israel: It was good. She’s a very good actress. She was very available. She was very into the film. She wanted to work with us, so it was good. She did a very good job. She’s a good actress. It was her very first film in the Dominican Republic, so she was very enthusiastic about it, and I think it was a good collaboration.
‘LL: Can you tell us a bit about the rest of the cast and why they were chosen?
Laura: The foreigner was played by Etorre D’Alessandro, who is the main producer of the film and the scriptwriter. He came up to us, and we saw in him a great character. We were totally immediately convinced that we could do good work with him. And, he had chosen for the Dominican protagonist, Algenis Pérez Soto, who played for his first time in Sugar, that took place in the D.R. about a baseball player who goes to the U.S. We had liked that film a lot, so we were really happy to work with Algenis, who had been away from the D.R. since, I think that was 2008 or ’09, so he was also happy to work back in the D.R. He was also so professional. He was originally a baseball player, so he trained really hard this time to be a boxer, and he was so good at it.
‘LL: What were some of the challenges you faced when filming the project?
Laura: We had very limited time to shoot this feature. We are used to shooting for longer periods, so this was a bit more challenging—shooting long scenery in very short days.
‘LL: Might we ask why you were given such a short time?
Laura: That’s what the production could afford. Usually, in the D.R., they shoot films in like four weeks, so that kind of like la regla (the rule).
‘LL: What have been some of the rewards of making a film such as Sambá?
Laura: Right now, we are very – well we’re excited about it being shown at Tribeca – but we are very tired because we have been working so hard lately. You can’t imagine how many times we’ve seen it. It’s been a lot of work.
‘LL: The story told with Sambá sounds like a story that Dominicans, Latinos, immigrants in general will find relatable. What are some other stories that you think should be told that Dominicans, Latinos and/immigrants will relate to?
Laura: I don’t know. I’m always thinking about that, and whenever I come up with a good story, I try to make it into a film.
‘LL: What are some stories that you both have told in your previous work?
Laura: We’ve done films mostly about foreigners in the Dominican Republic. We did Jean Gentil, which is a Haitian professor coming to the D.R. to make a living there and not finding a job, and traveled to the countryside to ask God why he’s had such bad luck. We also did Sand Dollars, which is the story of a French old woman, who comes to Samaná, to Las Terrenas, to find love, and she falls in love with a young Dominican girl who woos her to be able to travel to Europe for the first time. So, those stories we shot in the D.R., and I think they’re quite related to Sambá in a way, to the migration, people out of their country trying to survive.
‘LL: Sambá was the first film from the Dominican Republic premiering in the Tribeca Film Festival. We just wanted to know how you’re both felt about being a part of this.
Laura: It’s just work, and the film has to go where it has to go. It needs to target a good festival, and that’s what we’re used to up to now. For Jean Gentil, we had our world-premiere in the Venice Film Festival, and for Sand Dollar it was at the Toronto Film Festival. I think it’s in the same league. It’s a different audience, but still in the same league.
‘LL: What are some of the plans after the Tribeca Film Festival for Sambá?
Laura: It will be screening at different festivals around the world. There are some that I can’t say yet, because the program is not out, but [we did] BAFICI (Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema) in Argentina.
‘LL: How about for the general public – the folks who can’t make it to the festivals – when will they get the opportunity to see Sambá?
Laura: We have a U.S. distribution confirmed for later in the year—I think in the autumn.
‘LL: What are some other film projects that you both will be working on down the line that our readers should look out for?
Laura: At Tribeca, [we presented] at the producers networks of the Tribeca Institute, our new project that was supported by them. We recently received a grant from the Latin America Film Fund for a film called Beauty Kingdom. We are expecting to shoot [in the Dominican Republic] by the end of the summer, beginning of autumn. It’s a story of a re-encounter of a mother and son in the context of the making of the film, and it will play Geraldine Chaplin again [who starred in Sand Dollars]. That’s what we’re preparing next.