Cocote: Exploring the Politics of Aesthetics (Part 1)  

Rain gathers as mud between the veinous roots of a mango tree; the soddened ground releases a ripe smell of hummus into the atmosphere that lingers, prudently not clinging; it won’t be long before the scathing sun bakes the ground, collecting moisture, desirable currency in the economy of tropical humidity. Though an interstitial scene in Cocote (2017), a film by Dominican director Nelson Carlo De Los Santos Arias, the tacticity it elicits pervades the film. Cocote conjures a Caribbean landscape, politics, culture, and identity that feel in dialogue with Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, who said of Martinique:

“At the brink of dawn, this flat town — staked out.

Sources/Further Reading

It crawls on its hands with never any impulse to pierce the sky with a posture of protest. The backs of houses are scared of the fire-truffled sky, their feet of sinking into the ground, they have chosen to perch gingerly between surprises and perfidies. And yet this town does move along. Look at it, everyday, it grazes further on the tide of its tiled corridors, prudish shutters, slimy yards, dripping paintwork. And petty hushed scandals, petty silenced shames and petty immense hatred knead bumps and holes in the narrow streets…” (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, Aimé Césare)

Cocote depicts a community, which like Césare’s town, resists exoticization. Examining violence without engaging in pain porn, Cocote meditates on the effects of colonialism through the fraught character of Alberto (Vincente Santos).

Alberto, a gardener for a wealthy Santo Domingo family, is granted permission by la doña de la casa to return home for his father’s funeral in the countryside—a taxi to a bus to a motorcycle ride away. His homecoming is met by news that his sisters and mother already buried his father and by a vociferous demand: Alberto must avenge the murder of his father who was beheaded like an animal by their local gang, the police. But the proverbial adage of son seeking revenge would be a gross simplification of a film where the narrative is among one of many stylistic elements that Arias uses to decolonize the representation of Dominican identity.

Alberto arrives home in Oviedo at the start of the nine-day syncretic wake ceremony—a mix of Catholicism and West African Mysticism—that flies in the face of his born-again-evangelical tenets. Chickens are beheaded, goats skinned. The wake is shown in bouts; a handheld camera documents the rhythmic movement of convulsing bodies that wail, communal prayer shrouding the room. Local news broadcasts the story of a recently deceased goat that drank its way to fame, a frequent visitor of cantinas. Threats are delivered in lustrous black-and-white shots; an incandescent cobalt ocean backdrops a conversation that is about so much more than rape. And revenge is approached in a roundabout way as Alberto must first reckon with his religion.

Returning home pits Alberto’s evangelical morality, which demonizes non-Christian traditions, against his filial piety. And it is unclear if our protagonist will transgress his evangelical morals for his familial obligations. Two brilliant diatribes delivered at him, one by an evangelical priest, the other by his sister, are not only deft displays of acting; each tongue-lashing represents colonial power, one new, the other old. Starting in the 16th century, Spanish colonizers forced slaves into adopting Catholicism. But five hundred years of twisting the colonizers’ religion to accommodate island idiosyncrasies engendered a syncretic religion endemic to the Dominican Republic. While a hybrid religion shapes the identity of Alberto’s family, the imperialism of a new world order is at play in a bible-clutching Alberto.

In 1965 that particular brand of American imperialism that took root in Latin America during the Cold War arrived in the Dominican Republic: The US invaded the island, stalled communism, backed the brutal Trujillo dictatorship, and left the Christian evangelical church to propagate an imperialist system of morality—a divisive tool that continues to marginalize communities. French critic Andre Bazin said representation preserves life. How should one represent, in cinema, communities that colonialism, imperialism, capitalism have relegated to the periphery of society in ways that represent their lives? For Arias, Dominican identity needs to look, feel, sound different from mainstream film because aesthetic is inextricably tied to politics; the aesthetic of mainstream film perpetuates politics of oppression as the representation of non-white identities are whitewashed and stereotypes reinforced.

Cocote’s aesthetic is a fuck you to commercial Western filmmaking that favors uniformity as Cocote toggles between color and black-and-white shots; switches from square to widescreen to full-screen aspect ratios; oscillates between digital and celluloid film. Aesthetic sundry subverts the oppressive politics of a cohesive aesthetic because the plurality of filmmaking styles evokes multiplicity.

It is tempting to conceptualize Aria’s filmmaking as an agglutination of slow cinema because of the long takes; cinéma vérité because of the realist documentation of the wake ceremony; film noir because of the dramatic use of black-and-white film. But designating the many aesthetics that populate his film to preestablished genres and Western schools of thought risks not seeing the novelty of the composite, the Caribeaness of his aesthetic, what Arias refers to sometimes as an aesthetic of mestizaje. If aesthetic is in dialogue with politics, then what does a politics of mestizaje entail? I will continue exploring these ideas in part 2.