Death By A Thousand Cuts

Juan Mejita Botero and Jake Kheel

USA 2016, 1h 13min

The Dominican Republic and Haiti may inhabit the very same island, but there are grave differences between the two nations. Not least the fact that the Dominican Republic boasts a vastly better economy, with a BNP allegedly ten times higher than that of Haiti – itself the poorest country of the Americas.

The documentary Death by a Thousand Cuts is screened at the Oslo documentary festival Human Rights Human Wrongs this month and is based on a murder connected to the illegal coal production between the two nations. In Haiti, the use of coal, still a widespread and sought after energy source, has caused massive deforestation. This has led to many Haitians extracting coal from forests on the Dominican side of the border, which the Dominican authorities are finding hard to control. They are also no able to legally prosecute the statutory and border transgressors when they are back in their own country. And thus continues a very little a very unsustainable exploitation of the island’s natural resources, with the danger that the deforestation will spread to the Dominical Republic – despite the country, unlike Haiti, has led an active policy to protect their natural areas.

The film makers use the murder to paint a wider picture of the rather tense relationship between these two countries.

Prejudice and hate. The victim in the film’s murder case was a Dominican ‘park ranger’, in charge of stopping these types of illegal activities. In 2012, Melaneo, as he was called, was found dead in the woods near the Haitian border, killed by multiple stab wounds.

The main suspect is Haitian national Pablo Tipal, who was caught by Melaneo illegally producing coal on Dominican territory. Tipal remains, however, still at large and the Haitians in his local area seem generally unwilling to provide any information on his possible whereabouts.

This case is, however, not as clear cut as it may sound. The two film makers Juan Mejita Botero and Jake Kheel have not created your typical ‘true-crime documentary, but instead use this murder to paint a wider picture of the rather tense relationship between these two countries. After a while we are told about the park rangers’ excessive brutality, and how Haitians are faced with prejudices, taunts and how the Dominican population even have a historical fear of being ‘Haitified’. This will also strike the dead park ranger’s family, as Melaneo was wed to a Haitian woman who is forced to leave The Dominican Republic as a result of a more restrictive stance against immigrants from the neighbouring country. Despite Tipal himself not being apprehended, some of his close family members are exposed to something akin to a straight-up revenge.

At the same token, the impoverished Haitians who produce the fuel are not the ones benefitting the most from this illegal coal trade. Mafia-like organisations do – organisations that, according to the film, may be connected with the Dominican Republic authorities.

The world in miniature. Death by a Thousand Cuts is very well written and, filmatically, a great documentary, not least due to Juan Carlos Castañedas’ competent photography. In form as well as content, the film offers some similarities to Cartel Land, featured at last year’s Human Rights Human Wrongs. This film portrays the border control between USA and Mexico – although this Oscar-nominated documentary, if truth be told, gets deeper under the skin of several dramatic events.  In its essence, Death by a Thousand Cuts is more interview-based, but Botero and Kheel allow those featured to express themselves in relevant sentences, thus largely avoiding a sense of watching talking TV heads.

The film depicts a regional conflict which has not received much attention, and is therefore in itself important to focus on. Just as striking and fascinating is the fact that the story features elements that are transferable to a number of other areas. Akin to a miniature imagery of many of the world’s conflicts, Death by a Thousand Cuts portrays ethnic and cultural difference, and what types of discrimination, hatred and persecution these can lead to. Something which again can been seen in connection with European colonialism and the disparity creating consequences this has meant for various countries. Not least is it about economy and natural resources, and how both poverty and the absence of a more executive control continues to result in serious environmental atrocities.

In the wider context depicted in the film, the deceased park ranger is, in other words, far from the only one harmed by a potential deadly stabs.

The film will show at the Human Rights, Human Wrongs film festival, which takes place in Oslo from February 14–17, 2017.