‘Parsley’ debuts at Miami Film Festival

The film ‘Parsley’ is among several films being feature at this year’s Miami Film Festival. It looks at the 1937 mass killings of Haitians, and was directed by Dominican-born filmmaker José María Cabral. Haitian actor and producer Jimmy Jean-Louis is executive producer.

The film ‘Parsley’ is among several films being feature at this year’s Miami Film Festival. It looks at the 1937 mass killings of Haitians, and was directed by Dominican-born filmmaker José María Cabral. Haitian actor and producer Jimmy Jean-Louis is executive producer.

It is called “El Corte,” or the cutting. The 1937 massacre on Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, is one of the darkest periods in both nations’ tense history.

Yet, the ethnic cleansing by Dominican dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, who ordered the killing of thousands of Haitians along the border separating the Dominican city of Dajabón from it Haitian neighbor, Ouanaminthe, and elsewhere inland, has long been shrouded in silence despite being a catalyst for the anti-Haitian and anti-Black sentiment that permeates Dominican society today.

Thousands of Haitians, as well as dark-skinned Dominicans were killed after they reportedly failed a litmus test involving the Spanish word for parsley, perejil. Those who pronounced it properly by trilling the R were spared. Others who failed were hacked to death, their left ear cut off as proof by soldiers that they had killed Haitians.

Now, the story has made it to the big screen, courtesy of a Dominican filmmaker, José María Cabral, who is no stranger to using cinema to bring Haitians and Dominicans together to tell a story, or to strike up a dialogue.

Cabral’s latest film, “Parsley (Perejil)” tells the story of the carnage, which is also referred to as the Parsley Massacre, and it will be premiering at this year’s Miami Film Festival, which takes place Friday through Sunday, March 13. The film itself will be shown at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Silverspot Cinema 12 in Miami. The film will be available for streaming online as of 12:01 a.m. March 8 until 11:59 p.m. March 10.

Parsley - Director’s Photo.jpg
Dominican-born filmmaker José María Cabral returns to Miami Film Festival with a new film, ‘Parsley’ about the 1937 mass killings of Haitians along his country’s border

‘It was a genocide’

Told through the love story of a pregnant Haitian woman, Marie, and her Dominican partner, Frank, the film examines the ramifications of what Cabral describes as a “genocide.” The word is not one often used in the Dominican Republic to discuss the mass killings, which historically have been either downplayed or dismissed by Dominicans.

“It’s the definition of what really happened,” Cabral said, insistently. “It was a genocide of an order made by a dictator, Trujillo, to the Haitian people of that community in Dajabón and that’s genocide. I mean it’s the definition of what actually happened and I hope this movie helps bring that into a conversation.”

Some in the Dominican Republic claim that the incident never happened. Meanwhile, historians like Eduardo Paulino of Border Lights estimate that anywhere between 9,000 and 30,000 civilians — most of them Haitians but also Black Dominicans — were killed over five days in early October in 1937. Bodies were dumped in the ominously named Massacre River, separating Dajabón and Ouanaminthe, which took its name from an earlier massacre during colonial times.

After the 1937 killings, newspapers were forbidden by Trujillo to write about what happened and historians didn’t start looking for answers until after Trujillo’s death, 31 years after he began his iron-fist rule.

One question the film does not tackle is why Trujillo ordered the killings.

“Why exactly did he make” the decision, Cabral said, noting that months before the massacre the dictator had visited the Dajabón, and did not like what he saw: Haitians and Dominicans getting along.

Whatever the reason, Cabral said, it was a decision rooted in racism and xenophobia.

In the film, the audience is introduced to a community in Dajabón where Dominicans and Haitians live in harmony. They attend each other’s funerals, cook side by side and socialize together, with the Haitians effortlessly going in and out of Spanish and Haitian Creole.

“I wanted to start the film in that community where you could see how they were living in Dajabón,” Cabral said. “They called them Los Rayanos because they live [on the line]….It was a very particular community between Haitians and Dominicans, and it was a very good community and you can see this in the first 10 minutes of the film and how that changes because of the orders of Trujillo.”

Trujillo is only seen through a portrait, but he is throughout the film, represented by the tyranny.

Cabral said he wanted to tell a “very human story,” focused on family and in particular, a woman preparing to give birth. He wants viewers “to revisit the past and look at this episode in our dark history during the regime of Trujillo.”

“I just wanted to have like a human story where people could identify in a way and see how decisions made by a dictatorship really affected communities, affected families, affected human beings independently of where they are from, what their color is or their gender or whatever,” he said. “It was more about trying to empathize with a human story during the Parsley Massacre or Genocide.”

The main characters are Marie and Frank, who are expecting. She is Haitian and he is Dominican. When Frank is warned by a childhood friend, Germán, who is in the army of the pending massacre targeting Haitians, Frank dismisses it as rumor. Marie overhears the conversation and subtly tries to bring it up. The message she is given by Frank is that she has nothing to worry about because he is Dominican.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Haitians as well as Dominicans are killed, and those in the military doing the killing are just as dark-skinned as their Haitian victims in some cases. The decision, said Cabral, who did a lot of reading and research before he started writing a script for the film in 2017, was to show the racism behind the decision.

“It was not only about killing Haitians,” he said. “Black people killed black people. It was something very xenophobic.”

‘Let’s discuss it, let’s debate it’

The film’s executive producer is Haiti-born actor and ambassador-at-large to Haiti, Jimmy Jean-Louis. It is the first film that Jean-Louis has executive produced that he isn’t acting in, he said.

Jean-Louis said he decided to get involved with “Parsley,” which was shot over four weeks inside a studio, because he thought “it was pretty honest as far as the portrayal of the situation that most of the Haitians found themselves in, in that period.”

There is also another reason he decided to attach his name: the simmering tensions that continue to exist. Those tensions have since led to harsh policies by the Dominican Republic, like the stripping away of citizenship of Dominican-born children of unauthorized migrants in the country and a refusal to provide medical care to undocumented pregnant Haitian women, and the building of a border wall. Last week, Dominican President Luis Abinader visited Dajabón where workers are constructing a concrete wall that will cover nearly half of the 244-mile porous border between the two countries.

During the visit, Abinader sought to put a positive spin on the controversial construction, saying in a statement that “the benefit for both nations will be of great importance.”

“As a Haitian and an actor, if I could bring a little bit of light in that kind of story, I will,” Jean-Louis said about the tense relations between both groups.

There are no shortages of films, Jean-Louis said, that could be told about the massacre, which was the subject of Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat’s 1998 historical fiction, “The Farming of Bones.”

“Let’s discuss it, let’s debate it. It’s not about right or wrong,” Jean-Louis said. “It’s important to put it out; it’s one piece of the story…I welcome anyone else to tackle it and come out of it.”

By screening his film at the Miami Film Festival, Cabral will get a diverse crowd. But the question is how will both groups receive the film. He will be in attendance at the first in-theater screening on Sunday to participate in a post-screening Q&A.

While Haitians may welcome the fresh perspective, especially from a Dominican, it may not be the same for many Dominicans who, historically, have shied away from discussions about the massacre.

“I hope this film works to educate our generation,” he said. “We weren’t part of that history but we need to know about it. We can learn from it and prevent something like this from ever happening again.”

If you go:

What: “Parsley (Perejil)

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 6

Where: Silverspot Cinema 12, 300 SE Third St. #100, Miami

Cost: Tickets $10-$13

Info: https://miamifilmfestival2022.eventive.org

This story was originally published March 3, 2022 9:31 AM.

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.