“Sometimes, I imagine that I see myself from the sky as a tiny molecule, in the middle of the universe.” With these words, Jeffrey, a 12-year-old who works as a traffic light windshield wiper somewhere in the Dominican Republic, introduces us to his reality. And he does so displaying a near preternatural self-consciousness about his social situation. Such reflections underscore the scope of the broad issues that director Yanillys Perez tackles in her first long feature documentary. Along with his brothers, Jeffrey stands for a whole generation of children that struggle in the midst of a deeply unbalanced economic system to attain a dreamed-for future, to sustain his current present, and to leave their past behind. Through music and reggaeton rhyming, Jeffrey copes with his all-too-adult responsibilities, facing a society that constantly fails to answer his needs. Featuring a charismatic young lead — Joselito de la Cruz, who prefers to go by the name of Jeffrey the Nightmare — “Jeffrey” also blurs at times the thin line between documentary and fiction, a distinctive attribute that – more in line with Khazak Sergei Dvortsevoy, Brazil’s Gabriel Mascaró and Mexico’s Tatiana Huete — sets it apart from the tendency of most Latin American doc directors to limit their portrayal to visually observed reality. Variety talked with Yanillys Perez as she presented a rough cut at the Panama Fest’s 2016 Primera Mirada pix-in-post showcase, curated by fest artistic director Diana Sanchez.
The initial sequence — several aerial shots and then the camera swoops in toward the shack where Jeffrey lives. It’s an intriguing beginning for a documentary. Although the aerial shots work as establishing shots for the characters’ context, there’s also a far more complex camera approach in what looks like a crane set-up. That one especially stands out: It seems to be employing fiction narrative language rather than the more usual static shots or hand-held camera movement of documentaries. At other times, “Jeffrey” blurs the thin line between documentary and fiction. Could you comment on this? On what basis did you start in order to create the shot set-up?
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I wanted to observe and portray Jeffrey’s everyday life, and I had asked my team to have the camera ready before we arrived at Jeffrey’s place so we could catch whatever happens at that moment. The aerial shot was something I always imagined as our introduction to Jeffrey’s place, as a kind of fairy tale intro to a special kid/ hero of everyday life that lives an adult life but still has a dream. And we are going to follow him to find out about his family, neighborhood, country and dream. To show the contrast of a society that sees him every day but ignores him or forgets him the next minute. I spent three years filming Jeffrey. The aerial shots were done once we obtained the budget later to continue filming.
Following this line of thought, some moments reveal the presence of you the director, interfering with the film’s reality. For example: The camera positions sometimes suggest that the scene has been rehearsed or at least reenacted rather taken straight from the reality. And the acute comments of Jeffrey’s voiceover sound deliberately crafted. How did you work with him prior to the shoot to give him the tools to truly express himself?
I would let Jeffrey be himself and live his life and I would always arrive with the camera ready and if Jeffrey was doing something or something happened, I would catch them and film it. I have two cameras — my director of photography has one and I have one myself. The voiceover came from things that Jeffrey told me and I wrote them down in the process.
One of the things that I wanted to do was to observe Jeffrey’s life as if we were watching a fiction, to highlight the fact that my point of view on Jeffrey’s life is that it is like a fiction that still takes place today in our everyday life and we ignore it, like a postcard that we don’t want to accept and resolve but rather ignore.
At least two of your first three shorts also center on children or young adults in humble social circumstances. There’s a sense of commitment and thematic continuity. How did you become attached so strongly to this subjects? What kind of evolution have you seen in your own work while approaching these themes?
I always admired those characters in our everyday lives that at a young age are forced to take responsibilities and confront life. I see my films as a learning process for my career, and I think I have been growing up as a director with them. This is my first feature film and the first time doing a documentary in itself. My attachment to visual narrative can been seen in “Jeffrey’s” documentary style because it is about telling a true story but also telling it with camera movements sometimes.
I wonder if you could talk about the impact the film has had on the real Joselito de la Cruz’s life and music career.
The film helped Jeffrey to reach a certain degree of self-confidence in his own future. He was very excited when he started to be known on TV and radio shows but then no one called him anymore. As we can see in the movie the media were attached to the fairy tale that was to see a kid from the street who wanted to become “someone” and they loved it, but no one was shocked or revolted that he worked on the street since he was 6 years old. I convinced his mother to stop sending him to work on the street. He is now learning to write and to read a bit by himself while we find a place in a nearby school for him to go and learn on a daily basis. Jeffrey hopes that the film will be seen by many people and that somehow his music can be played. He deeply hopes his life will change one day.
In a way the film ends on a low note. Parallel to that, there’s a not so fore-fronted theme, however crucial to the situation itself, which is the absence of a parent – Jeffrey’s dad is barely around, his brother struggles to accept he’s a father. This could be seen as a never-ending cycle. How has this phenomenon affected the protagonists of your films? Do you see it as a social phenomenon in the Dominican Republic?
Jeffrey’s story is a reality of the Dominican Republic society. We can also observe it in various Latin-American countries. A story that still happens everywhere in the world. It is very frequent in the Dominican Republic. I agree that this lack of a father image has had a tremendous impact on Jeffrey’s life and behavior. He had to become an adult earlier than other kids. Somehow his brother Jeyson represents Jeffrey’s father figure that hasn’t been there around, but when his brother Jeyson had a kid, Jeffrey realized he had to stand up for himself more than ever before.