Woodpeckers is too gentle, prosaic and even misleading a title for a high-octane, bruising movie about an impossible love story that takes place across the 200 yards of empty space which divide two Santo Domingo prisons. Raw, intriguing and energetic despite its flaws, the film fades in dramatic power over its final stretch and doesn’t always do justice to the the potential richness of its subject, but until then, it makes for an authentic, distinctive and watchable blend of the tough and the tender. A documentary/fiction hybrid that’s more effective as the former than the latter, Woodpeckers deserves to follow up its appearance in Sundance’s World Dramatic competition section by serving time at festivals with a social conscience.
Petty criminal thief Julian (minimally monikered Haitian actor-director Jean Jean) is apprehended for motorcycle theft and thrown into the overcrowded Najayo men’s prison, as warm and welcoming an establishment as those word make it sound. (Though born in Santo Domingo, Julian has Haitian blood, making him the victim of local racism — though the film doesn’t go too deeply into this.) After having his signature ponytail humiliatingly shorn off, he finds his feet through the jail’s system of bribes and rewards, sleeping on a mattress which is the jail’s equivalent of a room at the Ritz, stealing a cellphone, and entering into an uneasy relationship with violent hustler Manaury (Ramon Emilio Candelario), whose sleeping space he takes over.
The film’s central conceit is that the prisoners stand at the barred windows, flirting and sometimes conducting full-blown relationships with the inhabitants of the Najayo women’s prison across the way. To do so, they use an elaborate sign language, known as woodpecking, especially developed for the purpose. (All this, incredibly, is real life.) While Manaury is in solitary, Julian woodpecks for him with Manaury’s girlfriend Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez), the film’s only likeable character, who inevitably Julian also ends up liking, especially after Yanelly signals to him the phrase, “You set me on fire.” “If you spend enough time doing this, you’ll learn to sense my touch and embrace,” Yanelly goes on to signal to Julian, in a rare concession to the poetic.
It is indeed a poetic and exciting notion — two emotionally deprived, marginalized people, furiously and desperately signaling their love across empty space, to someone they’ve never actually met. But as it advances — with Julian finding excuses to get work as near to Yanelly as possible, and Yanelly finding cunning ways of smuggling her panties back to him — there’s little poetry or depth. That said, there’s excitement aplenty, of both the suspenseful and erotic variety, to keep things moving, while the on-the-edge tensions of prison life are brilliantly and vividly captured by D.P. Hernan Herrera as the drama unspools below the unforgiving Santo Domingo sun. (Conditions during the shoot were apparently tough, to say the least.) Dramatically, the big question is: Will Julian and Yanelly actually manage to get it on without either of them being beaten to death by the borderline psychopath Manaury?
It is to Woodpeckers’ advantage that Cabral has grounded the project in the documentary aesthetic: This is a real insider view, and over the final scenes, things border on the spectacular. The film was shot on location, at the prison of the same name, using the prisoners as extras, and they speak their own argot, probably making subtitles necessary even for Spanish speakers. There’s a striking, gutsy credibility about it all, which makes up for its dramatic flaws, such as the sequence in which Julian and Yanelly signal at each other in public while a guard benignly and implausibly looks on. Editing, too, is not always too fluid, particularly when shuttling between prisons. There’s the lingering suspicion that Woodpeckers would have worked just fine as straight-up documentary, rather than the fiction/docu hybrid we have.
Jean’s laconic if purposeful manner as Julian makes him a charismatic oasis of cool in a world which is basically violent, frenzied, shouty and sweary: There’s little depth of characterization, when everyone’s simply seeking to gratify their urge for money, sex, drugs or or all three, as an escape from the tedium and the horror. Yanelly has a vibrant, tough and winsome presence, especially through the film’s later stages, when the hard-won authenticity starts to stray into soap and cheese territory — but between them the two leads do manage to make us care, if not about Julian, then at least about their relationship.
Freddy Arturo Ginebra’s score is guitar-based for the more lyrical sequences, but more often thudding percussion. Camerawork is urgently hand-held throughout, in line with the project’s prioritizing of pace over nuance.
Production company: Nabis Filmgroup
Cast:Jean Jean, Ramon Emilio Candelario, Judith Rodriguez, Fernando Rodriguez de Jesus Maya, Jose Cruz
Director-screenwriter-editor: Jose Maria Cabral
Producer: Maria Jose Ripoll
Executive producer: Jose Maria Cabral
Director of photography: Hernan Herrera
Production designer: Eumir Sanchez
Costume designer: Dolores Catedral
Composer: Freddy Arturo Ginebra
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment
No rating, 104 minutes