Sin Muertos No Hay Carnaval (2016) has the English name of ‘Such is Life in the Tropics’, but the Ecuadorian film’s Spanish name resonates many times with the audience. The thriller, directed by Sebastián Cordero, is a rollercoaster ride for the residents of Talia, Guayaquil, as they seek to resist powerful landowners and unscrupulous assistants attempting to evict them from their homes and community. Power and greed result in devastating consequences for both the powerful and powerless. The legal system is murky, violence is an easy solution, and those with access to wealth can undermine those who attempt to seek justice.

Everyone wants their cut, from those at the top of the social hierarchy to the hired thugs. “Respect our land, respect the land,” one of the young characters – Celio Montero (Diego Cataño) – angrily calls out to an exploitative lawyer. The sacrificial deer symbolises the inevitability of death at the hands of the Guyaquil ‘mafia’, as violence and greed spiral. The film represents the struggle for land and a safe and peaceful place to call home, pointing its lens at a city where money talks and the immoral have no respect for the sanctity of people’s lives.

Similar to the Ecuadorian film, director Yanillys Pérez’s Jeffrey (2016) also brings us perspectives on identity of place, but this time in documentary form. Reminiscent of the 2002 fictional film City of God, Jeffrey is set in the Dominican Republic and focuses on 12-year-old Joselito de la Cruz, aka Jeffrey, who dreams of becoming a Reggaeton sensation. The documentary brings to light the struggles of Jeffrey’s family, friends and neighbours, who cling to the hope he will make it. Jeffrey – The Nightmare – sings about belonging to place, belonging to Los Tres Brazos, his neighbourhood, his life – “It’s not pretty, but it does exist”.

Sibling number three of nine, Jeffrey is very hard-working, waking up at the crack of dawn to travel to the city of Santo Domingo and clean car windscreens with his handmade wipers in the blistering heat. Some of his siblings live with their mum, others with their dad. Supporting his family, helping to pay the rent with the peso or two he painstakingly earns in the city, Jeffrey wins over the audience with his infectious smile and banter: “Food will be good tonight!” he says when given notes rather than coins. The juxtaposition of shanty towns with McDonald’s golden arches in a cityscape with expensive cars on congested roads poignantly remind us of the stark contrasts between the haves and have nots.

Jeffrey is also philosophical. Sometimes dancing, other times pondering, Jeffrey imagines himself as a tiny molecule in the universe, as seen from the sky. When sad, he seeks sanctuary in his magnificent tree, the tree that walks at night. Jeffrey keeps the faith, even if he’s acutely aware of his suffering. The haven of the beach is both a workplace and a place of beauty where Jeffrey can breathe easily. The multitude of coloured seasonal lights on the trees during Christmas and New Year provide a welcome escape for Jeffrey to momentarily forget his worries, a time when he is otherwise reflective, wishing his father would bring them food and gifts. We learn not just about Jeffrey’s aspirations, but also get to know his family. He doesn’t want his sister to become a child labourer, like he’s been doing since the age of six. Instead, he aspires for her to succeed at school. His brother is a cabinet maker.

Throughout the film, we witness children being children – playing cops and robbers, painting posters to advertise CDs they wish to sell, dancing in the heat and making their own New Year’s fireworks and celebrations. But we also see children overburdened with responsibilities, pushed into adulthood too soon, who need to sell CDs for money so they can eat and pay the bills. The innocence of childhood is contrasted with the realities of what they see and live. It’s no wonder they prefer to play the robbers, rather than the cops. And it’s no wonder that they aspire to all things American. Jeffrey is proud of his American name. Playing a robber or partaking in American culture signifies the wealth and status that children, like Jeffrey, desperately seek. A particularly powerful and moving scene shows Jeffrey on his way to work. He passes by a group of children on their way to school, but for Jeffrey there is no school, only hard labour.

In the post-film Q&A, Yanillys Pérez explained that she had met with children on the street of the Dominican Republic and the charismatic, smart Jeffrey instantly grabbed her attention, as did his family. Jeffrey somehow stood out from the other children in his animated conversation and vivid imagination. Jeffrey’s life was filmed over a three-year period, then it took four years of post-production to make the documentary. Rather than film the drugs and violence that these young people encounter in Los Tres Brazos, Pérez successfully documents what it means to be a child holding onto innocence, while constantly being pushed into adulthood. It’s a documentary, so reflects reality, but of course it’s still edited and constructed, so at times blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality.

Watching the film, one cannot help but wonder about the ethical and power aspects of entering the life and home of a Jeffrey. What does he get in return? How can we ensure that our gaze is not an exploitative one? There are moments of discomfort witnessing a white, privileged audience laughing aloud at certain parts of the film. For example, there was audience laughter when the young people of Los Tres Brazos struggling to spell CD. It might be a humorous moment for a white European audience, but reflects the serious and ongoing issue of lack of schooling and low literacy skills for many young children throughout the world. Jeffrey is now 18 years old and the director and her team have been helping Jeffrey and the family since they met. The audience will be relieved to know Jeffrey has been supported through school.

¡Viva! Spanish & Latin American Festival 2018 continues until Saturday 5 May.

Sadia Habib