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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Ali

Q&A with Laura Guzmán

Filmmaker Laura Guzmán explains how the life of pioneering Dominican Republic director Jean-Louis Jorge inspired her new feature Holy Beasts

Reprinted with the permission of Caribbean Beat Magazine

Vera (Geraldine Chaplin) is a septuagenarian actress with a last ambition: to direct a screenplay by her beloved late friend, the real-life Dominican filmmaker Jean-Louis Jorge (1947–2000). Her crew, a bohemian band of Jean-Louis’s old colleagues, reunites on the island. Yet, as filming on the ominously named Water Follies begins, it’s clear something’s amiss. Things get curiouser and curiouser; as the plagued production threatens to fall apart, any semblance of reality is finally, fantastically, discarded.

An Antillean conjuration of Federico Fellini by way of Jean Cocteau, Holy Beasts is the latest film by the impressively prolific Israel Cárdenas and Laura Guzmán. Campy and kinky, woozy and weird, it’s a visually entrancing séance of stylistic excess, a touching tribute to an obscure artist, and a step forward for Caribbean art cinema. Jonathan Ali speaks with Guzmán about realising this singular dream.

Who was Jean-Louis Jorge?

He was a Dominican director of enthralling talent. He studied at the University of California at Los Angeles, then directed two films: Serpents of the Pirates’ Moon (1973) in LA and Melodrama (1976) in France. He was murdered in 2000. Even though his body of work remains incomplete, his vision defined the way for future generations.

What was the impetus behind Holy Beasts?

In the Caribbean, it is difficult to preserve almost anything in good condition. It is rare to find material from previous directors — time has erased them. We began this film as a battle with oblivion, as an homage to a generation of Dominican filmmakers who dreamed of making films against adversities, guided to a great extent by Jean-Louis Jorge, an artist who made timeless films, works that navigate nightlife, cabarets, and the magical, dramatic backstage of filmmaking.

This film is your most ambitious, in terms of the scale of production.

Though a step up in scale, it’s a natural one, connected to our previous film [2014’s acclaimed Sand Dollars, also starring Geraldine Chaplin] and the growth in the Dominican film industry. Holy Beasts may be the most personal work we’ve shot to date. We wanted to portray the world of filmmaking, convey the sense of vertigo and the insecurities one has when creating — film as a provocation of destiny, but also as a tool against mortality.

The extravagant side of the film is balanced by your continued interest in non-fiction tropes.

That blend happened naturally as the project developed. I contacted Edwige Belmore, Jean-Louis’s closest friend from the time he lived in Paris — she was ill, and sadly passed away in the beginnings of the project. She became an inspiration for Geraldine Chaplin’s character.

[Seminal Colombian filmmaker] Luis Ospina was friends with Jean-Louis from when they were both studying at UCLA. We suggested he could play one of the characters. We also needed to represent his friends from the island: Jaime Piña, who was friends with Jean-Louis and a film producer, was perfect for the character.

The three of them work well together.

All of them are cinema icons in their context. They play the crew behind the camera, young spirits with lots of wrinkles. In front of the camera are the beautiful young dancers and models. The contrast between generations is very suggestive.

Reality merges with fantasy in the film, the latter complicating the former.

In Sand Dollars, we explored reality through social drama. This time, since Jean-Louis is unknown to most of the world, we chose to privilege fantasy, relying on a free spirit that allowed us to play with cinema within cinema, with fantastic characters and imaginary spaces.

Near the end, there’s a haunting visual reference to the indigenous Taíno people. It echoes an earlier mention of an historical Taíno massacre. What was the motivation here?

To answer this, I’m going to quote Jean Louis from a 1978 interview: “I have three films written for the Dominican Republic. I’d like to do something on Taíno culture . . . It’s an old dream I wrote many years ago. I know that sooner or later I will achieve it.”

Holy Beasts

Directors: Israel Cárdenas, Laura Guzmán Dominican Republic 90 minutes

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