Yanillys Perez’ feature debut, which won the TIFF 16 Dropbox Award for the Discovery Section, is a work of creative nonfiction. Perez mixes magic realist voiceover with a social realist approach to its optimistic, clear-eyed, and poetic subject: Jeffrey, a charming and driven 12-year-old boy who dreams of becoming a famous reggaeton & dembow singer.
Dominican director Yanillys Perez just won the Dropbox Award at TIFF for her first feature Jeffrey, a much deserved recognition for this sweet and overwhelmingly humanistic documentary. The film follows Jeffrey, a charming and driven 12-year-old boy, who cleans car windows at a busy intersection in Santo Domingo but dreams of becoming a famous reggaeton & dembow singer.
Perez is fascinated by the liminal space between childhood and adulthood in which her subjects often juggle childish pursuits while encountering mature issues for the first time. For her debut feature, she was interested in the life of the children she would see every day who put their lives at risk on the road cleaning car windows for very little money. When she went to talk with some of them, the charismatic Jeffrey immediately caught her attention. As she got to know him, she soon realised that he was the ideal subject for her film.
Because he’s worked since he was six years old, 12-year-old Jeffrey already has a real awareness of money when we first meet him in the film, along with a work ethic unexpected for such a young age. He also displays an incredible creative energy as a singer and dancer. Under the stage name“‘La Pesadilla” (The Nightmare), he writes and records songs with his older brother. Together, they perform tiny shows for locals, and they try to sell or give away Jeffrey’s CDs on the street. But what at first might seem like a passing fancy is soon revealed to be part of a much more serious artistic endeavour.
It’s through voiceover — comprising snatches of dialogue that Jeffrey had actually said during some of Perez’ visits to Santo Domingo and then re-recorded for the film — that we get the full grasp of this child’s vivid, poetic imagination — the true measure of his artistic sensibility. In one sequence, Jeffrey talks about a grand tree by the river near his house, saying “I come here often, but never at night, because that tree walks at night.” This sudden burst of poetry seems almost contrived in the middle of a world where life is dictated by a constant scramble for money. Yet Perez explains that Jeffrey told her this the very first time she went to his house.
The director freely mixes a realist documentary approach and a heightened poetic style to give access to Jeffrey’s inner life, beyond his socio-economic status. Rather than serving solely as exposition, the voiceover here creates a magical realist aesthetic. Perez similarly blurs the distinction between fiction and documentary filmmaking using some aerial shots — requiring intrusion, construction, and thus fiction — to give a better sense of Jeffrey’s perspective when he imagines himself floating above the city.
It’s notable, however, that neither the film nor Jeffrey ever delve into pure fantasy or deny the difficult reality of his everyday life. Jeffrey’s voiceover also reveals the pragmatism of this precocious child. He is already aware of the limitations of his socio-economic situation but is still driven to try everything he can to achieve his dreams and help his family. The footage of Jeffrey working or singing with such optimism, fervour, and charisma would never suggest this self-awareness if it were seen alone. But Jeffrey frequently states in voiceover that he needs to work to help support his mother, and that he knows he is but one victim of mass poverty in his country. If Jeffrey’s courage gives him the strength to go knock on a TV studio door and sing in front of an audience, his wisdom is what keeps the boy grounded when he finally knows success and when it disappears.
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