There is no shortage of ways to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month — observed from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 — in the Centennial State, but celebrating with a movie is always a good start.
Down in Denver, the Sie Film Center hosts CineLatino, a three-day celebration of Latino culture now in its fourth year, with another slate of diverse offerings. Can’t make it to Denver? No worries. Woodpeckers — one of the best at this year’s fest — is coming to Boulder for a one night only showing at CU’s International Film Series on Sept. 25. And to sweeten the deal, the star of Woodpeckers, Dominican-Haitian actor, Jean Jean, will be there in person.
Set inside the notorious Najayo prison of San Cristobal, Dominican Republic — a place where the prisoners outnumber the guards roughly 266 to 1 and the right bribe can get you just about anything — Woodpeckers (Carpinteros) intimately follows Julián (Jean Jean), a petty criminal who falls under the tutelage of Manaury (Ramon Emilio Candelario), a cook with a temper and a need. Manaury is being moved to a remote quarter of the prison, which means he can no longer climb the cage that overlooks the all-women prison next door and communicate with his girlfriend, Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez Perez).
To communicate, the male and female inmates have developed a highly sophisticated form of sign language called “pecking.” Banned from the cage, Manaury teaches Julián to peck on his behalf and relay messages to Yanelly.
Julián complies, and for a brief time, he is in good with both Manaury and Yanelly. But then Yanelly starts to fall for Julián, and the two conspire to make sure Manaury, a violent criminal with a mean streak, doesn’t find out.
Simply put, Woodpeckers is a miraculous film. Written and directed by José María Cabral, a 29-year-old with talent, Woodpeckers was shot on a tight budget in real prisons with real inmates and real guards as background and extras. But Cabral doesn’t let the docudrama aspect of Woodpeckers get in the way of his imagination — some scenes feel like they were lifted from a 1970s science-fiction film and made real. This allows Woodpeckers to move easily from comedy to romance, to a stunning musical performance where Julián and Yanelly flirt in the prison’s most public arena, to drama and, finally, to the horror of a prison riot and the high cost of betrayal.
Drawing the audience in and helping us navigate these unfamiliar waters are the outstanding and naturalistic performances from Jean, Perez and Candelario; their faces guiding us from pain and humiliation to redemption and purpose.
That is one of the many reasons why IFS’s screening of Woodpeckers is essential: Here is a chance to hear Jean Jean’s account of navigating that narrative while working in a prison surrounded by inmates and guards. Not exactly something you come across every day and certainly not something you’ll want to miss.
On the Bill: Woodpeckers, with lead actor, Jean Jean, in person. Monday, Sept. 25, 7:30 p.m. International Film Series, Muenzinger Auditorium, University of Colorado Boulder, internationalfilmseries.com