By Katie Chambers
NYWIFT member Amelia Deschamps is a journalist, documentary filmmaker and TV/Radio producer from the Dominican Republic with more than 20 years of experience. Last year, she brought her creative and reporting skills to the U.S., where she is studying documentary filmmaking at New York Film Academy to take the next big leap in her career. And she’s already seeing results. Her short film In Search of the Blue Heart made its world premiere at the 2022 DOC NYC Festival. The film follows Daniel Quezada who, after 32 years of working in the larimar mines of the Dominican Republic, seeks to make this his last extraction to retire and dedicate his life to the stone trade.
Deschamps spoke to us about filming in the depths of the larimar mines, her world premiere, and her transition into documentary filmmaking.
Congratulations on your DOC NYC world premiere! What does inclusion in the festival mean to you?
I am honored! This is the starting point of a new phase in my career. After been a journalist for more than 20 years in my country, the Dominican Republic, I came to New York to pursuit my dream of becoming a documentary Filmmaker.
In Search of the Blue Heart is a short film that I made with so much effort. This is my thesis film to complete the one-year Documentary Filmmaking Program of the New York Film Academy. When I saw the reaction of the public, the comments, opinions, and questions at the premiere I couldn’t have felt happier!
DOC NYC is the largest documentary film festival in the United States, and to do the world premiere of my short film in this scenario in an opportunity that I don’t take for granted.
How did this project come about? How did you meet Daniel and decide to follow his journey?
I have always been interested in the people. How they think and why they do whatever they do. We all learn through the impact these stories have on us.
In 2021 we were dealing with the coronavirus. I had a limited time to shoot my thesis film, and I wanted to do something related to the Dominican Republic. After discussing several social issue projects, the circumstances prone me to do a story about the larimar, the Dominican Republic national stone. I realized that none of my classmates knew what larimar was and, even though there are several stories about the larimar in my country, I felt we needed to talk about the people that brings it to the surface, the miners. This were both the story that hasn’t been told, and the answers that I was looking for.
It was challenging because I was in New York trying to find my characters doing interviews over the phone, with the help of a friend that lives in Barahona, the city where the mine is. After doing over a dozen interviews, Danny came in [and was] so alive! He is a proactive person, with so much experience in the artisanal mine. I mean, he turns 50 this year and he has been working in the mine all his life. He has goals and huge stakes, everything that makes me curious about his life. But I really met him and the team when I arrived in Barahona City to shoot the film. I wasn’t sure of anything until I met them.
The visuals in this film are stunning and, as Daniel and his colleagues descend into the mine, harrowing. The danger they put themselves into daily is felt very viscerally. How did you capture those shots while also maintaining the safety of yourself and your crew?
Everything around us screamed danger! We had to have a lot of self-control and confidence. “If they can do it, [I can] too.” I repeated that to myself every day while I felt the heat the deeper we got into these tunnels. Self-control is the key and my experience as a journalist also helped.
But also, in situations like this is important to be surrounded by people that you trust. In the main days I went inside the cave with a longtime friend who is also a producer in the Dominican Republic, he did the audio, and we relied on each other, and we took care of each other inside.
The third factor was the miners: they paid attention to us, especially at the beginning, until we [understood] the place and its dynamic.
And I also believe in risk management: I prepared myself with the gear and as much information and training as I could to keep us safe and not put in danger the others.
Regarding the danger and the difficulties of the mine, I have an anecdote to tell: The first day we arrived in the mine, one of the workers asked me “who is the guy who is going to film inside the mine?” I laughed, of course. This type of challenge keeps me going. I have been working as a journalist for so long that is unusual for me to receive these types of comment, but they still happen. And I know his context help him to think like this, but I believe that we must continue making efforts in each of our professional spheres to eliminate stereotypes, so that what is natural today (such as these types of preconceptions) will cease to be so tomorrow. It must be a social commitment of all of us.
Have Daniel and his family or any of the other miners seen the film yet? What has been their response?
Around 12 days before I presented the film at DOC NYC, I was able to organize a small gathering for the miners in Barahona, in the Dominican Republic, to show them the film. I loved their reactions! How they laughed and teased each other!
We had a relaxed and profound conversation about the film, about their lives, the stakes that they are confronting now, and I will never forget when one of them said: “No one had seen us, nobody had seen us like you did,” and that is priceless for me. That means all.
They felt respected and that was important to me.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
This is a conversation starter, or at least, I hope so. I entered these tunnels trying to understand the miners that entered day by day into these [old] and dangerous tunnels of Los Chupaderos Mine, to extract larimar. I want to show to the world the origin of this beautiful blue-sea semiprecious stone. How these miners do this job, why they do it and how they think, in their own words.
But I would like the public to [come to] its own conclusion. The context and background [of each audience] will bring people to a different path. In DR, I am certain that it will bring another type of conversation [than it will in the United States].
You are a highly experienced news anchor, including a decade hosting the TV morning show El Día. What inspired you to move behind the camera?
I am not the story. The people and topics that I am interested in, they are the story.
I started my career as a TV news producer, and I have had the privilege to work both in front of and behind the camera. I respect and love both positions so I think the world, projects and ideas only open more possibilities of what I can do. I am glad that I can do both.
As a journalist, I have found myself in situations, countries, and scenarios [where] I wish I had a professional camera with me to bring those stories to the surface. I realize I needed to be prepared.
I am a goal-oriented person, interested in social issue stories that unfold in scenarios with less control than what I had in the larimar mine, and I want to be able to tell those stories no matter the circumstances.
Your work as an investigative journalist has taken place primarily in the Dominican Republic. We are thrilled that you joined New York Women in Film & Television as a member earlier this year! What brought you to NYC?
I wanted to learn new ways to tell stories from the documentary perspective. What are the similarities and differences between the investigative journalism I was used to doing and the kind of documentaries that are broadcast on the big screen or on the big streaming platforms?
I put my career on hold to come to New York last year, 2021, to pursuit that long life dream of becoming a documentary filmmaker. I decided to do the One-Year Documentary Filmmaking Program at the New York Film Academy to accomplish both of my goals: reconnect with the technical tools and learn new ways to structure my stories.
For me, it’s just a new step in the path I decided to walk a long time ago.
What’s next for you?
First, I [hope] In Search of the Blue Heart reaches a wider audience through various festivals. That would be great!
We all have dreams: As a Latina women interested in geopolitics, I believe there is more in the world that connects us as human beings. The more we know each other, the more we educate our communities in respect and love for themselves, for others, and for the environment, the better we make the world. I believe our work is a perfect tool to help with that goal.
I know that the backbone of my work will be to bring social issues to a wider audience: migration, environment, human rights, these are the issues I am passionate about. I will continue to work towards this goal.
If we succeed in getting these issues to be discussed, we will have taken a first step. If our work finally contributes to the solution, what greater satisfaction could we expect?
Thank you so much for this interview, Katie. Thank you for your time and consideration. And thanks to NYWIFT for bringing us together as a big community.
This is interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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