A ranger stands at the border between the Dominican Republic and the deforested mountains of Haiti (Juan Mejia Botero)

A ranger stands at the border between the Dominican Republic and the deforested mountains of Haiti (Juan Mejia Botero)

This engrossing, thought-provoking documentary starts off with the 2012 murder of a park ranger, whose body was found in a forest near the Dominican Republic’s border with Haiti. The prime suspect was a Haitian national named Pablo Tipal, who had a reputation for sneaking into protected forests and cutting down trees, which he would turn into charcoal to sell.

In towns along the Dominican side of the border, news of the murder served to enflame the existing tensions between residents and the Haitians living in their midst, many of whom immigrated illegally. One Haitian interviewed claimed she had to flee from her home, which was subsequently burned down in retaliation by Dominicans. Meanwhile, among the family and loved ones of the victim, who went by the nickname Melaneo, his death created a wedge between blood relatives and his widow, due to the latter being Haitian.

Filmmakers Juan Mejia Botero and Jake Kheel explore the ugliness that emerged between Dominicans and Haitians, and which continues to simmer not so far beneath the surface. However, they also take a step back and look at the complicated, shared history between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which intertwines into the present. From the very beginning, the film argues that a key event was the former’s adoption of a preservation policy to protect its forests. By contrast, Haiti undertook no such initiative, and by the 1970s, its forests were decimated.

The paucity of trees in Haiti is what drew Tipal across the border in the first place. But as for why he went on to kill Melaneo, that becomes a more complicated story with no clear resolution (Tipal is still at large). This much is known: The victim’s body was found covered in knife wounds, implying some personal motivation behind the incident, and little progress has been made toward Tipal’s arrest and extradition. Indeed, the murder exposes the lack of policy by the Dominican government toward either the nation of Haiti or Haitian immigrants. Not only have the wheels of justice ground to a halt, but Melaneo’s widow cannot even claim her husband’s death benefit, due to the lack of such provisions for undocumented immigrants such as herself.

The film also serves as an expose of the region’s wood charcoal industry, which provides cheap cooking fuel at the expense of local ecology. Tipal was far from the only Haitian engaging in this activity, and one of Melaneo’s former colleagues confirms that charcoal production has become a serious problem, not least because the perpetrators are difficult to catch. In addition, they must be caught in the act of charcoal-making to be arrested, but Dominican authorities cannot pursue them once they cross back into Haiti.

Given the frustrations present in enforcing the law, it turns out rangers such as Melaneo started utilizing more violent and unorthodox tactics, a powerful stroke of gray across what fast becomes less of a black-and-white murder case. While the film may have started out depicting Haitians as transgressors and Dominicans as victims, the relationship between the two countries proves to be far more complex. At various points, the filmmakers insert historical information revealing that, if anything, Haitians historically made their way back and forth across the border into the Dominican Republic, and were at times victims of atrocity at the hands of Dominicans in events such as the 1937 Parsley Massacre.

Intriguingly, the Dominicans’ hostility towards Haitians seems fueled more by fears of demographic and cultural change than by anything ecological. Yet the resulting rhetoric is no less dehumanizing and dangerous: there is television footage of a politician warning the public against the dangers of “Haitianization.” In a particularly chilling scene, a group of Dominicans refer to all Haitians as criminals and casually joke about rounding them all up and killing them with a bomb.

Death by a Thousand Cuts doesn’t propose solutions, but its snapshot of a highly-flammable situation involving immigration seems especially timely right now. It’s a compelling, well-made cry for greater empathy over fear and nationalism, featuring some truly evocative cinematography. One recurring shot contrasts the two sides of the border: one covered with lush forestry, the other deathly sparse. It illustrates the differences between the two countries, but also serves as a reminder that due to sheer proximity, they will ultimately rise or sink together.

Death by a Thousand Cuts will screen on December 1 at the African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York City