‘Death By A Thousand Cuts’ Film Goes From Personal to Polemic

The filmmakers behind the gripping new documentary go deep into the issues fueling coal exploitation.

The Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital partners with filmmakers, environmental experts, community activists and local organizations to host DCEFF 365, a year-round lineup of screenings and events that focus on the planet’s most pressing issues. On Wednesday July 27th at 6pm, we will be hosting the DC Premiere of Death By A Thousand Cuts at the Inter-American Development Bank.

The documentary, presented in partnership with the Dominican Republic Environmental Film Festival, examines the complex issues and human costs behind coal exploitation.We talked with filmmakers Jake Kheel and Juan Mejia Botero to learn more about DBAT and why they got involved with the project. Read the Q&A below to find out.


DCEFF: How did you get involved in filmmaking?

JAKE KHEEL: My career and passion is in environmental protection. My involvement in filmmaking began with Death by a Thousand Cuts because I recognized that good storytelling is an important vehicle for creating awareness of complex social and environmental issues and that a well-made film could be a powerful tool for creating positive change.

JUAN MEJIA BOTERO: I received my first degrees in anthropology and my studies focused on how to broaden the impact of my work beyond the academy. Both as an activist and as an academic I recognized the power of film as a powerful tool to communicate and denounce what I was seeing day in and day out.   Documentaries were the natural progression in being able to tell complex stories to broader audiences. Through the past 15 years I produced a number of documentary films focused on around matters of forced displacement, ethnic autonomy, state violence, and the competition for natural resources.


DCEFF: What drew you to this particular project?

JK & JMB: The island of Hispaniola, shared by two countries, has a fascinating history and represents a unique case study both in the consequences of natural resources management and the economic inequality. We started this project with the belief that the complex challenges that this island faces and the real threat of conflict could be a cautionary tale that applied to many countries, not just DR and Haiti.


DCEFF: What challenges did you face in the process of producing the project?

JK & JMB: From early on it was clear that this was a very complex story, and we saw the need to debunk more simplistic explanations of what was causing the growing deforestation along the Dominican border. As documentary filmmakers, we knew it would require a large investment of time to gain the trust of the characters in the film in a way that allowed us to really portray the complex issues we wanted explore and address in the film. One of the biggest challenges was getting the financial support to be able to really dedicate the necessary time to deeply explore the subjects and develop relationships with the people in the film to accurately represent them and their situation.


DCEFF: What has been the most successful outcome of the production, thus far?

JK & JMB: The goal of Death by a Thousand Cuts is to use the film to create awareness of the risks of deforestation, inequality, and strife between two countries. I think we were successful in presenting a much more intricate and accurate portrayal of the environmental and social situation along the border, which we are seeing generate a deeper understanding of the issue. While we are very proud of the film and also of the recognition it has received (Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival), we look to ultimately measure the success of the film on its ability to create a real impact on the island of Hispaniola.


DCEFF: Why do you think DCEFF (and DREFF) are important?

JK & JMB: Death by a Thousand Cuts is a film that has been developed through a number of unique partnerships. The credibility, reach and diversity of the audience that DCEFF and DREFF are able to attract are key factors that led us to partner together. We are extremely pleased to work with both festivals, in order to create awareness among key constituents in the Washington DC area.


DCEFF: What do you think makes for a good environmental film?

JK & JMB: From the beginning of the project, we felt that the storytelling and cinematography would be crucial to producing an effective environmental film. As our Producer Ben Selkow said from the beginning, we want to work from the “personal to the polemic.” We wanted to avoid telling the audience what to think but to lead them through a visually engaging, captivating journey through complex social and environmental challenges and let them come to their own conclusions.


DCEFF: How do you hope audiences will receive your film?

JK & JMB: We hope to generate concern and interest about the potential conflict over natural resources, but we are also developing an outreach campaign and calls to action so that people feel empowered to act. The film will serve to engage people and we hope that the outreach campaign will motivate them to act.


DCEFF: What’s the one takeaway that you want potential viewers to walk away with?

JK & JMB: We really want to debunk simplistic explanations regarding deforestation, which risk increasing xenophobia and inflame tensions further along the border. While we wanted to get across that there is an intricate and urgent situation and a real potential for conflict over natural resources, we also want to make sure folks understand that there is still time to make change.


DCEFF: How can viewers take action or get involved with the issue, after watching the film?

JK & JMB: We are currently developing an outreach strategy to involve viewers. Right now, anyone interested in the film and the issues it addresses can visit our our Facebook page for more information and updates.


Juan Mejia Botero is the director of Death By A Thousand Cuts. He an award-winning filmmaker with over a decade of experience in feature length and short documentaries. His work has focused primarily on human rights, activist, grassroots media and collaborative documentaries. Read more about Juan and his work here.

Jake Kheel is the co-director and producer of Death By A Thousand Cuts. He is a leader in the field of sustainable development. For over ten years he has confronted social and environmental challenges in the Dominican Republic as Vice President of Sustainability of Grupo Puntacana and Vice President of the Grupo Puntacana Foundation, successfully implementing sustainability programs that have garnered the company many global sustainability awards. Read more about Jake and his work here.


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