Dólares de Arena: From Book to Netflix

April 1, 2016

A few months ago, the Dominican film Dólares de arena (Sand Dollars), by Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, was added to the Netflix catalog. This bi-national couple—Guzmán is Dominican and Cárdenas is Mexican—are married, have several children and are also responsible for feature films such as Cochochi and Jean Gentil, as well as the documentary Carmita. Without doubt, Dólares de arena is their most successful film and, according to a Variety critic, their best work to date. The directors themselves consider it their film that speaks most directly to the public, in its form and its characters. For those of us who have followed the journey of Dólares de arena, the news that it is now available on Netflix has great importance as the film may now be seen and appreciated by millions of people.

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Poster for the film
Poster for the film

Set in Las Terrenas, one of the most exquisite coastal areas of the Dominican Republic, Dólares de arena recounts the romance between Anne, a mature French woman fleeing from her past, and Noelí, a young Dominican twenty-something who scours the beaches for tourists who will give her money in exchange for companionship, and who could offer her a more promising future. Given their differences, the love story between these two women is peculiar and complex. Something terrible has happened to Anne, which we discover indirectly and in small revelations. Her widowed son who lives in Europe avoids her calls, and Anne’s drinking grows increasingly frenetic. There is a memorable scene in which Noelí asks about her past and Anne, rather than answering, walks into the sea. Within seconds, the waves drag her under, and when Noelí manages to get her out of the violent waters, we are given to understand that the ocean represents Anne’s dangerous and tormented past, where she should not loiter lest it swallow her. Even still, the elements that truly upset the relationship are Noelí’s ulterior motives and her boyfriend Yeremi—yes, as it turns out, Noelí has a boyfriend. In hopes of keeping this from Anne, Noelí tells her that he is her brother. As Yeremi doesn’t work and for all intents and purposes lives off of the dollars acquired by Noelí, he comes up with a plan: Anne must obtain a visa for Noelí and bring her to live in Paris, from where she will send him money each month. This proposal is not entirely unusual—we come to find out that it is a common occurrence in Las Terrenas and that Noelí’s own mother emigrated to Spain in a similar situation. Still, in the interim, several obstacles will appear to give the film unexpected twists.  

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Screenshot of the film with Geraldine Chaplin as Anne
Screenshot of the film with Geraldine Chaplin as Anne

Although the film’s title references sexual tourism or transactional sex, the directors’ interest lies in telling a love story—or, more accurately, asking the question of whether love is possible between two people from different worlds. Perhaps a loving relationship fed by money isn’t necessarily a cold material transaction in which the exploited is manipulated by the exploiter. While Anne feels deceived by Noelí, they share moments of tenderness and complicity in which money becomes something secondary. It’s not difficult to see these contrasts as metaphors for the relationship of the developed world with third world countries, or for Europe’s decay and the Caribbean’s vitality. This difference is also notable in the choice of actors in the principal roles. While experienced actor Geraldine Chaplin was chosen to play Anne, the role of Noelí is portrayed by Yanet Mojica, who makes her film debut in Dólares de arena after being discovered in Las Terrenas, as the directors explain, where she danced salsa in live shows.

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Screenshot of the film with Yanet Mojica as Noelí
Screenshot of the film with Yanet Mojica as Noelí

In addition to these excellent actors, the film features the formidable acting of Ricardo Ariel Toribio, who interprets Yeremi, Noelí’s boyfriend. Toribio is a renowned percussionist who has participated in various musical projects. The selection of a musician and a dancer for these roles is not a matter of chance, as music is one of the fundamental and remarkable elements of this film. It must be noted that the film begins and ends with the appearance of legendary Dominican bachata player Ramón Cordero, who interprets the piece Morena mía, a musical leitmotif throughout the movie.

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Screenshot of the film with Ricardo Ariel Toribio as Yeremi
Screenshot of the film with Ricardo Ariel Toribio as Yeremi

Two other characters are members of the jet set who interact with Anne: Goya, a sort of alter ego for Anne, played by María Gabriela Bonetti, and Thomas, one of Anne’s best friends, interpreted by Hoyt Rogers.  The casting of Rogers recalls the selection of Yanet Mojica in the way it gives an impression of local color: The actor, a North American poet and translator, is among the expats who have lived longest in Las Terrenas. He has observed firsthand the arrival of Europeans and North Americans to these beaches.

In addition to the strong cast, the film benefits from the pristine cinematography by Jaime Guerra and Israel Cárdenas, who capture and recreate the disparity in which the residents of Las Terrenas live, from the sumptuous mansions with manicured lawns to the precarious shantytowns. Nature appears as a middle point between the two, with its hills, its palm trees rustling in the wind, and its turquoise sea. The landscape effortlessly projects the joy or the desperation of each of the characters.

The Book

lares de arena is a free adaptation of Les dollars des sables by French author Jean Noel Pancrazi, a writer well recognized in the Francophone world, who has received many prizes and awards. In Les dollars des sables, published in 2006 by Gallimard, the love story occurs between two men (rather than two women, as in the film): a Frenchman who narrates the novel, and a young married Dominican man. Significantly, the Dominican character in both works is named Noelí, perhaps attributable to the mutability of the name, but the points of similarity do not end there. Upon opening the novel, we see that the name in the dedication corresponds to the name of the character. This could mean that the novel’s Noelí is not a character of fiction, but a person of flesh and bone. Hoyt Rogers, who in addition to being a cast member is also a friend of Pancrazi, confessed to me from his home in the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo that this is a true story:

“Jean Noel always does this. All his books are what Truman Capote would call faction. Meaning, it’s not fiction, and it’s not journalism, but rather a mix of the two. Les dollars des sables is no exception. When Jean Noel was finishing Tout est passé si vite, he was having a passionate love affair with a young man named Noelí. That was his real name.”

The story in the novel recounts that after the relationship between Noelí and the French narrator ends, Noelí boards a dinghy bound for Puerto Rico, which winds up capsizing.

“I asked him once,” continues Rogers, “if the young man had really died, and he told me no, that the death was part of the fiction, that he had seen him again but he was no longer interested in continuing the relationship.”

Despite its homosexual romance and certain controversial elements (such as pedophilia and the detailed description of a journey by dinghy to Puerto Rico), Les dollars des sables was received without scandal and was largely ignored in the Dominican Republic—that is, until the translation published in early 2011 allowed a small group of Dominican readers to come to know the book. David Puig was responsible for this; he meticulously translated the novel to Spanish, producing a version of great quality, precision and faithfulness to the original, reconciling the lexicon of high culture with local slang. Given that Puig currently resides in Cairo, I emailed him to ask, among other things, how he became interested in the French author’s novel. In his response he told me that he first read the book in 2006 and was so affected by it that he knew he needed to edit the book in Spanish in the Dominican Republic.

“Lots of things in the novel caught my attention,” commented Puig, “among them the unusual love story and the point of view about the nation. Through the homosexual relationship between the foreign narrator and the young married Dominican man, the novel describes the Dominican coasts with their hotels that have turned into places of transactions and experimentation. The young Dominican in the story is a boy of humble circumstances who finds himself living between two worlds, the rural universe of his house on the hill where he lives with his wife, and the beach with its hotels, restaurants and bars, where he meets tourists like the novel’s narrator. Jean Noel captured so well the way these worlds relate to one another, understanding the hopes, the desires and the doubts of the foreigners and the Dominicans. It’s a good example of the reach that a foreigner’s unprejudiced gaze can have.”

He explains that he was interested in Pancrazi’s style and how the work led him to a different way of seeing familiar realities.

“It made me think,” he adds, “about the link between literature and reality, about how language is the filter through which we receive what is around us. That’s why in the Spanish version of the book I tried to preserve Jean Noel’s very long sentences and unusual syntax as much as possible. It was important to me that the Spanish reader feel the same strangeness that the original French provokes: the disorientation in the middle of unending sentences from which one emerges a bit stunned and enriched at the same time.”

Nevertheless, after finishing the translation, he realized that no existing Dominican publisher would be interested in it. The Dominican publishing world had practically disappeared years ago. Here, authors have no choice but to self-fund their own publications or send them to foreign editors.

“When I began to translate the novel,” continues Puig, “I asked myself all the time where I’d like to see it published in the Dominican Republic. And since I didn’t see any satisfying option, I told myself this was the opportunity to create a space to house certain kinds of texts and topics of concern.”

That is how Los dólares de arena came to be published in January 2011, as the first volume of David Puig’s recently created editorial house, Ediciones De a Poco. Today it has published six titles that include narrative fiction, poetry, and books with a visual focus.

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Cover of the French edition of the book
Cover of the French edition of the book

The Adaptation

In addition to putting Pancrazi’s novel in reach of Dominican readers, Puig’s translation also helped to spark Laura Amelia Guzmán’s and Israel Cárdenas’ interest in adapting it for film. Their approach to the novel was aided by several commonalities they found in the text. The pair had not only filmed previously in Las Terrenas, but the characters depicted in the book also reminded them of their own subjects. Jean Gentil, their second film, consists of a kind of journey in which a Haitian professor moves from Santo Domingo to Las Terrenas looking for work. Just like the main character of The Life and Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee, the protagonist of Jean Gentil stays immersed in his own solitude, falling apart and becoming one with the paradisiacal landscape Las Terrenas.

In order to understand their perspective on the adaptation, I sent an email to Guzmán and Cárdenas, who responded from the midst of preparations for their new film:

“There were several coincidences that led us to the decision. First, we wanted to return to Samaná to film a story with these characteristics, to explore contrasts, relationships, music and atmospheres. The book arrived at exactly the right moment and when we read it, it grabbed our attention to find precisely those atmospheres, details and relationships, more than a linear story. From there I think we were motivated to play with the idea of making a free adaptation, and in a certain way, as a response to the writer’s point of view. Something that would complement, rather than illustrate, what happens in the novel.”

Puig, who was already aware of the work of Guzmán and Cárdenas, was in no way surprised by their interest in Pancrazi’s book. 

“In both Jean Gentil and Cochochi, ” writes Puig, “The natural environment plays a primal role. The novel Los dólares de arena contains descriptions of the torrential rains and the tropical vegetation of the Samaná peninsula. The narrator is, more than a foreigner, a character out of place both in his native society and the one he visits. This mismatch that allows lateral commentary about reality is a condition shared by the main characters of the fiction and documentary films by Laura and Israel. Lastly, Los dólares de arena is—just like Laura and Israel’s films—a slow, somewhat circular journey that serves as a pretext to explore the lives of the people who embark on these voyages.” 

Hoyt Rogers, on the other hand, points out another aspect that bears mentioning. Years before, the film Vers le sud (Heading South) was filmed in Las Terrenas and also explored the theme of sexual tourism. This film, based on a novel by Danny Laferriere, tells the story of European and American women of a certain age who travel to Haiti searching for love affairs with young men.

“Charlotte Rampling appeared in the starring role,” says Hoyt Rogers. “Charlotte Rampling and Geraldine Chaplin in Las Terrenas! What a fascinating detail! Not everyone knows this, but of course Laura Amelia does, because her first interesting job in the film world was as assistant on that film.” 

Still, what really stands out about the adaptation is the gender switch. Some might assume that the change was made due to the directors’ opportunity to work with Geraldine Chaplin, or that they did not want to portray certain sordid elements from the novel. However, according to the directors, they simply wanted to freely adapt the tale in order to explore their own concerns.

“In the beginning the decisions made by Laura and Israel greatly surprised me,” remembers David Puig, “In particular switching the gender of the main characters and changing the rhythm of the narration: I had hoped to find in the film more of the meditative, languid, almost obsessive dimension created by Jean Noel’s prose and the narration of the French foreigner visiting the Dominican Republic. But very quickly I realized I was judging the film in the wrong way, looking for another translation in the adaptation, this time from novel to film. I was watching the film with the eyes of a translator in love with the work. Obviously, my point of view was absurd and limited. A cinematographic adaptation can only work when it transforms the original material. Laura Amelia and Israel made an audacious bet, taking from the book what they needed to put together their Dólares de arena. They created a film with its own energy, exquisite music and actors with great impact, to the extent that today, when I think of the novel, I see Geraldine Chaplin and Yanet Mojica, who were both marvelous in their roles, and I have to work hard to conjure up the image of Noelí as a man.”

Hoyt Rogers goes a little further and compares the decision made by the directors with that made by Marcel Proust in relation to Albertine Simonet, one of the main characters in In Search of Lost Time. In this series of novels the character is depicted as a woman, but she was inspired by a male chauffer who had been the lover of the French author.

Says Rogers: “Many people have criticized Proust for inverting the character of Albertine and not assuming his homosexuality, as opposed to André Gide, who did. One critic said that this came from Proust’s desire to show something else, not like Gide in The Immoralist, where he explores the heroism of living in rebellion against reality. Here Proust wanted to demonstrate that love is always the same, whether between two men, two women or a man and a woman. It may seem a lack of courage to change the gender, but really it’s the demonstration of a thesis of ambivalence. I think that the film shows this anew: It doesn’t matter if it’s a woman and another much younger woman. In the novel it was a man and a young man, but it’s the same relationship, the same ambiguity between he who has and he who wishes to have, and he who loves and he who doesn’t know if he loves or not. This was fine with Jean Noel, as he told me at the premier of the film at the Rome Film Festival.”

Netflix

Today, Dólares de Arena is available on Netflix, where millions of people can watch it. Critics from around the world have praised it. Geraldine Chaplin has been recognized and awarded prizes, with New York Times critic Stephen Holden calling this one of her most touching screen performances, and others have come to consider that the film has re-launched her career. Recently, Gallimard published Les dollars des sables as a pocket edition, with a photo still from the film that shows Chaplin and Yanet Mojica walking on one of the beaches of Las Terrenas. Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas have an eager audience anxiously waiting for their next project. When asked to react to that fact, the pair prefers to take a philosophical, common-sense approach:

“All the works we have made are significant in that they are our school. One learns intensely during these processes. As always, the most important thing a film can give us is the possibility of making the next one.”

When I tell Hoyt Rogers that the film is now on Netflix, he is surprised and comments that he will watch it that very evening. Then, he looks at me for a moment and asks if I know where the term “sand dollar” originates.

“From a sea urchin,” he says, as soon as I shake my head no. “The name comes from their skeleton’s flat, round form that recalls old U.S. dollar coins. It’s a marvelous sea urchin. From what I’ve read, they can clone themselves at will.”

“Did Jean Noel Pancrazi take the reference from there?”

“Of course. Surely he saw all those sand dollars strewn about on a beach in Las Terrenas and said to himself that had to be the title of his next novel. It’s truly a beautiful title for a book. Not to mention a film.”