“Mountains,” director Monica Sorelle’s richly personal directorial feature debut, is an eloquently composed story of a Haitian-American family navigating gentrification in their Miami neighborhood of Little Haiti. Told through several perspectives, Sorelle and co-writer Robert Colom’s lithe script primarily sees these impending, catastrophic changes through Xavier (an entrancing Atibon Nazaire), a diligent demolition worker still enraptured by the promises of the American dream. For Xavier, the chance at upward mobility arrives in the form of a quaint house newly on the market. But his dream soon becomes a mirage amid an avalanche of systemic economic forces directly affecting persevering immigrants like him. “Mountains” sustains itself by giving voice to people like Xavier, those left protecting their self-worth in a country fixed on depriving it.
And yet, it’s not trauma that compels Sorelle’s politically attuned film. But a vibrant tenderness directed at a vulnerable community slowly losing its grasp on the customs, haunts, bonds, and daily players that give their Haitian neighborhood life. Through Xavier’s eyes, we witness the bevy of homes torn down to erect high-rises. Realty signs, featuring a white woman geared to affluent white buyers, spring up like weeds in front of the houses once warmed by immigrant families. Xavier’s calmly observant wife Esperance (Sheila Anozier) also takes center stage; in her job as school crossing guard and as a seamstress in the neighborhood, audiences encounter the imperative landmarks (a bustling school and tiny shops) that make up the area. And from their son, Junior (Chris Renois), an aspiring comedy, a window opens to first-generation Americans balancing the temptation to assimilate with the expectations of their immigrant parents.
Throughout Sorelle’s vivid film, these characters encounter colorism and systemic racism while still experiencing joy and romance: The charming love shown by Xavier and Esperance, the youthful exuberance felt by Junior and his friends, and the euphoric events (Ra-Ra’s and family gatherings) are the necessary balms that steady “Mountains.” They are captured sensitively through cinematographer Javier Labrador Deulofeu and Sorelle’s keen, empathetic eyes; they are given a rhythmic pulse by the Creole language that is as colorful and affectionate as the film.
After premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Mountains” landed at The Toronto International Film Festival before winning the Best Narrative Feature prize in Charlotte, New Hampshire, and Indie Memphis.
RogerEbert.com spoke with Sorelle at the Black Harvest Film Festival to talk about gentrification in Little Haiti, her film’s necessary use of Creole, and the displaying of humanist portrayals of immigrants in “Mountains.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The film begins with a Haitian proverb; what does that proverb mean, and what resonance does it have for you?
Proverbs are really big in Haitian culture. When we were trying to figure out the name of this film, I was looking at proverbs, and that one in the film—“Behind mountains, there are more mountains”—has always been one of my favorites. It’s essentially a way to say just when you figure some shit out and went through some shit, there's some more shit that you're gonna have to figure out. It could also be interpreted as behind the horizon, there's more. So it can be a positive as well. But I think, generally, there's always something down the line. And it resonated with me because of the Sisyphean journey the working-class immigrant in America feels, where you try to roll this ball up the mountain, but there's always something that knocks you down.
The politics of the film primarily take place on these demolition sites, where the homes that dot Miami’s Little Haiti are being destroyed in the name of gentrification. How did you find these construction sites?
We wrote this whole film around demolitions, but it was the last thing we got. We’d been shooting for two weeks, and we still didn't have any of those locations. We had scouts going around, trying to create relationships with these people. We were trying to figure out what their schedule was so we could put that schedule on our schedule. But the nature of demolition is they might hear a day before that they got the permit, so they're gonna go there tomorrow. It's also very obviously a male-centric industry. We had a woman scout who they didn't really respect all that much. Since there were so many issues with getting the locations, we started shooting without them, just hoping that eventually something would pop up.
I think, maybe, three weeks into the shoot, Robert [Colom] said, “I think we're gonna just have to send everyone home, do this part of the shoot, and then separately find these demolition sites afterwards.” But then, during the third week of shooting, on a Thursday, someone who we called weeks or months ago left a voicemail asking if we were still looking for demolitions. They had one on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. It was like magic; it sort of happened. The person who plays the excavator operator was someone we had met, and he also said he had a job next week and we could shoot him while he was working. We didn’t have any of our demolition workers because we couldn't put them on hold. So essentially, I was on set shooting, and Robert was going into a Rolodex of actors and auditioning them on Zoom and then coming to lunch to show me the casting videos. It was a crazy turnaround.
Speaking of timing being on your side, you mentioned in the Q&A last night that the script was written in 2019, but you didn’t begin filming until 2022 because of the pandemic. With the extra time, the script shifted. In what ways did it shift?
The general story and the general approach was always there. I think what shifted was not so much the story, although we did add some scenes and clarified some things, it was more our approach to creating it and our approach to what we wanted our process to be and who we wanted for our cast, our crew, our partners. So we were very mindful of every single person we had on set in terms of not being interested in maybe getting the best or most experienced person, but rather who gets it on a cultural level or on a regional level. And mostly, who is a good person to work with? I didn't want to recreate the hostility that you see on so many film sets.
The casting here is amazing, particularly Atibon Nazaire, who plays Xavier. He’s so tender and soulful, thoughtful and funny. How did he become part of this project?
I didn't know who he was when we started casting. I had another Haitian actor in mind, who a lot of Haitian people know, but something in my gut didn't feel right. So we went back to basics. I decided not to do an open call because I just didn't think it was possible in Miami to find a Haitian man in his fifties who was going to give me six weeks of his life, so we had an intern scrub through any movie or TV show with Haitian characters or about Haitian people, and she created a reel for us. I told her to check out this film called “Forever Yours,” which is a Haitian indie romance film. We watched that film, actually, for its leads. I didn't feel like they were right for Xavier, though, ironically, the lead of that movie is actually the brother-in-law at the dinner table scene in this film. So we did cast him from that. But it didn't initially feel like it was a match. Just before I was about to turn the film off, there was a scene where the lead is talking to his buddy about a girl that he likes or something. The camera cut to the buddy, and it was Atibon. There was something so magnetic about him, so cool and relaxed and natural.
Robert and I were like, who is that? We did some digging and saw he had bit parts in “Mother of George” and other TV shows and indie films. Then I found out he was friends with another Haitian filmmaker who was actually in town that day for the Miami Film Festival. So we ambushed her at a party and told her we were thinking about this guy named Atibon. She's like, “That's my best friend. I'm gonna give you his number.” She hooked it up, and the minute we saw him at the meeting, I didn't think I could find anyone like him, to the point we didn't audition anyone else. He brought so much to the character. He's a very attractive and magnetic kind of guy. And yet, he was able to bring a stoicism and dignity to Xavier that I really appreciated.
He and Sheila, who plays his wife Esperance, have so much chemistry. There is a clear warmth between them, which I think also comes through in the dialogue. Xavier calls her “sweetie,” “queen,” “love,” “little mama,” and so many other honorifics. Could we talk about crafting their romance?
From the beginning, when we were sculpting the story, we would look at it in terms of goals and themes. One of them was that we didn't want to perpetuate a lot of the tropes I felt were harmful with regards to portrayals of immigrants. For example, immigrants being angry or anxious all the time or there being no romance between the husband and wife. So many portrayals of long-term marriages on screen prioritize duty first. You know, Robert's parents are still together. My friend would tell me stories about how, with her elderly mom and dad, she could still hear them giggling through the door at night.
I think it dehumanizes us when you don't show that we have a range of emotions, loves, aspirations, and ambitions. I wanted to show that this long-term romance was still very much alive. In the script, I left a lot of room for the actors to be able to speak in their own voice. Whenever Xavier would say something loving, that was Atibon who would say that. We would talk about wanting him to honor her. Because this is a reflection of my family, too. We’re very emotive and gentle and kind to each other in the ways we say “love” and “baby.” I definitely wanted that reflected in the dialogue and in their chemistry.
Having the majority of the dialogue be in Creole probably also helped to facilitate that too. Could you talk about the importance of this film being in Creole?
So Robert and I aren't in the industry. We're not from that space. Everything we've made has been incredibly independent and incredibly scrappy. When we were thinking about the film, it was sort of a no-brainer to us for the language to be Creole because we wanted to make a Neorealist film about a Haitian family, so why would they be speaking English in their house? That's just not what happens. I didn't realize, in terms of the industry, in terms of American indies, that that was subversive in some way.
But thinking about the dialogue, it turned into almost like a preservation project. Atibon was very adamant about saying certain words a certain way. I would have a way of translating things in a Haitian-American way, where the language was sort of getting warped by American tongues. He felt like this film was a way to be able to preserve actual Haitian Creole before it gets gentrified. There were words I had never heard of or phrases I wouldn't say in a certain way that he was very adamant about. So language is really important, not only for realism, but also for ensuring the Haitian language could be shared with the world.
When you talk about protecting, gentrification is such an immediate threat in the real Little Haiti and the Little Haiti of this film. How reflective is the film of the situation on the ground?
Growing up, I didn't live in Little Haiti. But it’s where my mother worked and where she lived for several years when she first moved to the US, so I spent a lot of time there as a kid. When I moved back to Miami in 2014 after film school, something was off. It was really apparent. I had just seen this film called “Right to Wynwood”—it's one of the companion films to “Mountains”—it really broke down gentrification for me and explained what's going on in our neighborhoods and how it really is a systemic process. It’s incredibly planned, starting with detailed 15-year-long tracks that developers create. That film broke down the Soho model and how it was being put to work in Wynwood.
When I moved back to Miami, and I saw the same developers from that town hanging around the neighborhood, I realized this is real. That year, I joined a nonprofit, and we’d do direct actions and protests, but unfortunately, I grasped that if everyone's hip to the gentrification that is presently happening, that means it's already too late. The wheels are in motion; the buildings have been bought behind our backs. I stopped doing organizing work because I immediately became burnt out.
During that time, really awful systemic things had been happening in the city. At one point, there were these two plazas that have been there longer than I've been alive. There were thriving Haitian-owned businesses. But the buildings were sold to a developer who then raised the rent by a lot. Of course, this disturbed the longtime business owners there, but at the end of the month, they decided to make the payment and came with their rent checks. That same week, the new owner gave them back their rent checks. He was actually planning on evicting them anyways. He just didn't imagine that they would have the money to pay his new rent. The city is also chopping up Little Haiti into smaller neighborhoods so developers can call the neighborhoods different names like “Little River” or “Lemon City” instead of what it is.
I remember showing the film to friends and family back home and overhearing someone say a business in the film was gone now. Even in the year since I shot it, there are places that are gone and that are closed, and I think a year from now, it's gonna be even more stark and disturbing. People can't afford to live. I was looking for an apartment, and I can’t even afford to live in Little Haiti anymore.
That’s what makes the ending so powerful when Xavier is enveloped by a parade as he stares at his dream house. It’s defiant, melancholic, and joyful all at once.
We always knew we wanted to include Ra-Ra because it's something that was disappearing from the neighborhood. It felt like a sign of the change that was happening. They used to happen every Friday. The parade goers would go out, people would hear it and leave their house, and they'd join in this massive parade throughout the neighborhood. But then it started dwindling as education began rising. I wanted to make sure that was also preserved on screen.
We also had always planned on having them go to a Ra-Ra at some point in the film. With regards to it being at the end, Robert came up with that because we had no desire to actually show Atibon’s dream house getting demolished because it would have felt so sickening and gross. So we thought about a parade, specifically a Ra-Ra, which is a carnival kind of parade that has to do with revolution and joy and culture. We wanted to use the Ra-Ra to sort of bring Xavier back to the basics: this is who your community is; this is who your culture is. There's more than material wealth here. There is a cultural wealth that you can take away from here.
What do you hope people take away from this film?
Everyone approaches this film differently depending on their experience with either Miami, gentrification, or Haitian culture. I think for some, especially Haitians, it's just a joy to see themselves reflected on screen and to see people that resemble themselves, resemble their families, and resemble their dynamics. For some, it's cathartic to see a father-and-son relationship rebuilt and healed. For others, it's a slight call to action in terms of being aware of what gentrification looks like on the ground. Not in a didactic way, but in terms of the familial: Who are the people that are actually affected by this?
The film asks you to take care of that knowledge, take care of your community, take care of the people that are being affected in these ways, and be mindful of how you show up. This is definitely a David versus Goliath situation, and I cannot pretend that I have any real solutions here. But I think being a very mindful, good neighbor is one step. Making sure you preserve your culture and your neighborhood's history is another. Even though this is a specific story about Little Haiti, I think had we known 20 years ago, there could have been things done to sort of protect the citizens there. But because we were all caught off guard, we got caught in this tsunami. So there is a call to action so others can begin community organizing before it’s too late.