Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Milk of Hope / El Seno de la Esperanza

No words needed.

After the earthquake that devastated Haiti almost a year ago today I find myself in the planning stages of a film that will be a tribute to an incredible Dominican woman who helped in a very simple, humble and beautiful way many of the children victims of this unimaginable tragedy.  The moment I read her story in the Dominican media earlier this year the more I thought that her story should take cinematic form.  It was one of those real life stories that just stayed with me and didn't want to leave my head.

I gathered as much research over the internet as possible on this woman, because I wasn't going to be happy until I dramatized her story the best way I knew how, first on paper, as a script based on the real life events and then as a film.  Her name is Sonia Marmolejos and she became a national hero in the Dominican Republic when after the earthquake hit our neighbor Haiti, she breast fed many Haitian babies whose mothers were either dead or injured in other hospitals.  Many of these babies were in bad shape themselves. Sonia was at the Dario Contreras Trauma Center in Santo Domingo with her four year old daughter who had an operation for polio when the earthquake hit. A few days later she breast fed the first Haitian baby, his name was Orlando Diego, that's all she remembers. He had a nasty head injury, basically a sunken skull and needed to be operated on and was crying uncontrollably when she stepped in to breast feed him. Having a two month old baby of her own back in the town of Enriquillo in Barahaona province she was full of milk.  Her labor of love continued for many days, helping many babies get back on their feet.  After learning what happened, the president of the Dominican Republic, Mr. Leonel Fernandez sent for her. When asked if she wanted anything for doing such a beautiful and unselfish thing for these babies, she said she only wanted medical help for her own child who had been stricken with a form of polio.  The government gave Sonia a brand new house for her, her husband and her five kids. She also got a monthly stipend from the port authority and on December 23 of this year, her child will finally get the surgery that will allow her to walk again.  Last but not least she got the highest civilian honor from the government "La Orden del Merito Duarte, Sanchez y Mella".  She got this award at a ceremony attended by presidents Bill Clinton, Rene Preval of Haiti and Fernandez of the Dominican Republic.

Sonia's beautiful smile.

There is much more about this story of how this 28 year old mother of five, hundreds of miles away from home helped the little victims in such an incredible way.  I wrote the script based on the news reports I had read and titled it "The Milk of Hope" in the English version and the Spanish version "El Seno de la Esperanza".  The short script caught the attention of HBO and the New York Latino International Film Festival and was I was invited to pitch it to an audience at an HBO panel held during the festival this past summer called The Art of the Short.  I had been pitching it to my own colleagues, friends and family for a couple of months so when the time came the pitch flowed naturally.  The script and pitch got high marks from the HBO executive Gregg Rhem, who was moderating the panel. This was very encouraging and I pledge to myself that I would come back to next years festival with a finished film.
Freddy Vargas, sets up a shot in between takes
Right before the festival my friend in Santo Domingo, the director and  producer Juan Basanta had read the script and liked it. He suggested that I should go and interview the real Sonia Marmolejos and get the story from horse's mouth.  This way, I would be able to enhance the script and tell her story more accurately. He also suggested that I might be able to use the footage from the interview to start the film, sort of the way that is in my script, but with the real person.  My original script is book ended by an interview with Sonia Marmolejos on national TV.  I had planned to meet with Sonia in the near future, but I thought the idea was excellent and wasted no time, so Alci Medina (my best friend and Cinematographer of my last short and producer and collaborator in many other projects since we both attended St. John's Unversity) and I got on a plane a few weeks later (this is before the HBO panel) and went to Santo Domingo where we me Basanta and so within two days after we got there, armed with a small crew we drove seven hours to Enriquillo, Barahona to shoot the interview with Sonia.  The interview went great and Sonia proved to be kind, humble, and supportive of the idea of making the film.

We're planning a fund raiser to be held at the end of January and are approaching the right people in the D.R. in order to make this short film a reality.    More to come....

Incredible blue water and sky in Enriquillo, Barahona.

Cows on the side of road on our way back to the capital from lush Enriquillo.

This shot of Balneario Los Patos ended up in the cut of the interview.
Balneario Los Patos in Barahona D.R.
Turquoise blue waters of Enriquillo.
Outside a pulperia in Enriquillo.
Enriquillo street. This shot ended up in the interview.

Enriquillo street.

Panoramic shot of Enriquillo, Barahona. This is in the cut.
A shot Basanta took with his flip camera.

Little boy in abandoned Cock Fighting ring.
From Basanta's flip camera.
Aunt Elizabeth applying make up to Sonia.

Sonia breastfed her baby without us asking her and kept shooting the interview.

Sonia getting her make up done for the interview.
Setting up landscape shot of Enriquillo, Barahona with Alci Medina (left).  5D Cannon.

Alci Medina doing his thing.     
A shot from the 5D, during interview. Alci Medina, cinematographer.
Juan Basanta self portrait.
During the filming of the interview with Sonia Marmolejos.