Ramona could be described as quintessentially Dominican, but that would do a disservice to the nuanced storytelling approach that director Victoria Linares Villegas has crafted with her cast and crew. As a cross-genre film mixing fictional and documentary elements, echoing the tradition of magical realism, Ramona is an extraordinary piece of cinema.
The fictional narrative focuses on a pregnant 15-year-old girl running away from home to become a film actor through the melodramatic style of telenovelas. Woven throughout are the actual perspectives of multiple young women with firsthand experience of pregnancy and the environment they come from. According to the Pan American Health Organization, over 20% of girls aged 12 to 19 in the Dominican Republic have experienced pregnancy.
In preparation to play the titular role, actor Camila Santana says that she cannot fully understand the character of Ramona because she comes from an affluent background where teen pregnancy isn’t as common. In response, Linares explains that they will interview 15 young women from rural areas just outside the capital city of Santo Domingo who can help her understand, to a point, what it’s like to be poor and pregnant. Nicol shares the social guilt she felt when she thought about having an abortion; Martina details the generational legacy of early pregnancy and how she wants her daughters to break the cycle; and Maite recounts the predatory methods men have used to take advantage of her. The interviewees occasionally reenact these scenes with guidance from Santana, as if in an actors’ workshop. While providing a safe space for this group of women, the collaboration also brings out the unique quality of chisme (“gossip” in Spanish) as a forum for people to voice their concerns about their community in a playful, informal way.
Linares’s directorial style lends itself more to creative nonfiction than traditional documentary, yielding a delightfully unbound metafictional quality throughout Ramona. Santana and Linares engage with their subjects as the people they are, and use theatrical depictions of their experiences to bring their inner truths to the surface.
Of particular note is a bar scene rehearsed by Santana and actor Anderson Mojica as the interviewees observe and give feedback on the scene’s authenticity. The way Mojica performs a caricature of a man hounding a woman at a bar strikes a chord with the women watching; they have all encountered and dealt with some version of this character before. Kernels of truth emerge in moments like these, when the interviewees collectively recognize these scenes and understand the story of Ramona as an anchor they can each channel in their own ways.
There is a spirit of play at work in Linares’ film that recalls Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami or Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, styles in which images speak as language. Yet with Ramona, Linares is charting her own path as a significant voice in Dominican cinema.
Ramona (2023) screens at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center (8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, Maryland) on October 8 and 9.