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Observed Online Interviews

In ‘Mountains’, Tracing Miami’s Complexities Onscreen

Ahead of their BlackStar premiere, Monica Sorelle and Robert Colom chat slowness and notions of home in their Little Haiti-focused debut.

By Dessane Lopez Cassell

July 17, 2023

Sheila Anozier in Mountains (2023), dir. Monica Sorelle. Courtesy Fusion Entertainment.

If you’ve spent time in Miami, you might be familiar with a running joke:

There’s Florida, and then there’s Miami.

While situated within the state’s borders, the southern coastal city has always possessed a culture distinctly its own; its rhythms and nuances informed as much by its proximity to the Caribbean and Latin America, as the immigrant communities that have shaped it for decades.

For filmmakers Monica Sorelle and Robert Colom, Miami is also a muse. Each born and raised there, the two have spent years building a collaborative practice rooted in the city’s idiosyncrasies. (Serendipitously, they met while assisting on Moonlight (2016), another consummately Miami film.) As members of the Haitian and Cuban diasporas, respectively, Sorelle and Colom are something of a mirror of the city’s predominant communities, where it’s not uncommon to find official signage printed in three languages: Haitian Kreyol, Spanish, and English.

In co-writing their feature debut, Mountains (2023), Sorelle and Colom bring Miami’s complexity to the screen, yielding a quietly moving portrait of a Haitian-American family, as they navigate longing and stagnation amid the churn of gentrification. The creeping transformation of their neighborhood, Little Haiti, is both backdrop and a source of wistfulness for Xavier (Atibon Nazaire), an aging demolition worker, whose work requires him to participate in his own community’s destruction. Yet tenderness abounds, as Xavier and his wife Esperance (played by Sheila Anozier, with stunning grace) continue to dream up the next phase of life for their family, inviting audiences to bear witness to an enduring love for each other and their community.

Ahead of the film’s BlackStar premiere, I sat down with Sorelle and Colom (director and producer of the film, respectively) to chat about Little Haiti, slowness, and notions of home.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

* * *

Dessane Lopez Cassell: So take me back a bit. How did you two first start dreaming up the project?

Monica Sorelle: As a prologue, we’re both from Miami. My mother landed in Little Haiti when she first moved to the United States in the ’80s, and she worked there for a good portion of my childhood in the ‘90s. It’s like a second home for me.

When I left for film school and came back, I noticed changes happening in the area that I didn’t have the name for at the time. I didn’t know what gentrification was in 2014, but I could feel it. At that point I knew about what happened to Wynwood, another neighborhood in Miami that was a working-class Puerto Rican warehouse district that had been completely demolished and turned into an arts district.

With that in mind, I tried to spring into action. I started working at a nonprofit in the neighborhood and quickly realized that I was not an organizer at all. I spent the next few years trying to figure out how I could use the skills I do have: filmmaking and storytelling.

In 2018, [I was] working with Robert at the Third Horizon office [a Caribbean filmmaking collective and film festival, then] in Wynwood. And we’re watching houses get demolished every day in the neighborhood, as we’re walking to lunch. Oolite Arts, a local arts nonprofit, put out this call for micro-budget feature film ideas. I don’t think we’re audacious enough at the time to think that we could make a feature film. And then, one day, [we saw] yet another house getting demolished, but this time we saw one of the demolition workers say goodbye to his coworkers and then start to cross the street into the suburban, still-Puerto Rican, part of the neighborhood. This image was really striking to me, and I turned to Robert: “Micro-budget idea: a demolition worker lives so close to his home that he can walk there in his gentrifying neighborhood.” And we were the last application in, and one of the first to be given this grant to start production on this film. That was the end of 2018.

Robert Colom: We took the next year to write the movie and take advantage of the residency [at Oolite Arts]. We had intended to shoot the film in mid-2020 but then… [laughs]

That pause was really good because it let us [take] a real hard look at the movie, and then we went back to the drawing board for certain aspects of it. And we were able to really be intentional about casting, which we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do if we had just been go, go, go [on our original] schedule. It was just a series of really lucky accidents, I think.

DLC: I want to go back to Xavier’s work in demolition specifically. He’s this character who really loves his community and yet, to make a living, he also has to participate in changing its landscape, sometimes for the worse. Could you talk more about the process in writing this character and navigating those complexities?

RC: The city of Miami is a complicated one. In order to live here, you have to hold more than one idea in your head, and all those contrasting facts are true. And I think that when we were thinking about this character, we were tapping into some misconception about the immigrant monolith, which is that everyone expects us to have one opinion, live one life, one kind of thing.

We designed these characters in ways that reflected our own families and the people that we know. And there’s certain things that we have to hold true about them that are conflicting. And I think for Xavier, the big moral conflict at the center of his character was really interesting to us because it’s something that we see all the time and have to live with and experience ourselves.

Atibon Nazaire in Mountains (2023), dir. Monica Sorelle, courtesy Fusion Entertainment.

MS: I think Robert describes beautifully, the complexities, not only of living in Miami, but just living in a capitalist society. How do you [hold] this promise, this dream, without harming others? Is it possible?

We were interested in reflecting our fathers, and our uncles, and our patriarchs, and all the things that they have to juggle to make their experiences in the United States make sense. How to be a kind human being, but also a provider; a loving father and husband, but also a destroyer. We’re interested in making sure that we [see] someone living the life that he was told he has to live. ‘If you put your head down and you work hard, you will succeed and you will get the big house and you will retire.’ And I think we’re interested in Mountains being the slow unraveling of that idea and the slow awakening of a middle-aged man finally looking up from his work and seeing the realities in front of him.

DLC: That touches on something that I found particularly striking about the film: its framing of time. We have these scenes spent with Xavier, Esperance and their son, and they move at this slow and intimate pace, [as if] pushing us to soak up the nuances of their dynamic. Yet you also have the very rapid clip of gentrification happening: houses being demolished in one fell swoop, and fights between fellow workers that quickly escalate along racial lines. How did you and your editor Jonathan [Cuartas] establish the film’s rhythm?

MS: When we were developing the film, Robert and I were always saying that this was a Caribbean film and not an American indie. Obviously we both grew up on American indies and have so much love for [those films], but we wanted to make sure that the tempo of the film fit what Miami feels like, which is slow and hot and sticky, so you could savor the things that make Miami beautiful.

When it came to the demolition, we were very much interested in taking Xavier out of this warmth and putting him into sites that were loud and jarring and, I guess, escalating in violence.

RC: Similarly to what I was talking about when I was describing Xavier’s character, I think that depending on where you live and what context you’re in, you can experience Miami at a lot of different pulses. And I think that the pulse of Xavier’s and Esperance’s and Junior’s home is much slower than the constant destruction and rebuilding of the city.

I think that Jonathan, similarly to how you would create…what’s that term in music? Polyrhythm! Similarly to how you would craft a song like that, Jonathan was able to really weave both of these pulses together. And that’s how we experience the film: as something that’s both quickening and fighting against itself. [Xavier] is almost like a man out of time because he’s having to live in these two timelines: the very quick timeline of the work, and then the more grounded timeline of his family and the love and his life. And I think that’s a testament to Jonathan. He’s a writer/director himself, and I think has such a good eye and ear for pace and tone.

DLC: I want to keep talking about the role of Miami in the film, because the city is its own character in the film. You shot on location in Little Haiti, and I feel like the more I re-watch the film, the more I find a lot of comfort in this very crowded, hominess of the couple’s house, which I feel like a lot of immigrant kids can relate to: the crowded nightstand, all of these little projects started in one part of the house, before moving on to the next one.

To go back to your point about working in the neighborhood and not wanting to contribute to harm, could you walk me through some of your priorities when you were shooting and scouting locations and how you navigated that as filmmakers?

MS: There was no other place that we were going to shoot. We wanted to shoot in Little Haiti; we’ve always wanted [the film] to serve as an archive of the neighborhood and capture spaces that by the time of the film’s release, may not even be there anymore.

We also were very conscious about our footprint. There were several opportunities where we could have scaled up the film and we consciously chose not to because I don’t think we wanted to contribute to the invasiveness that a lot of developers [bring] on a daily basis just with their presences. We wanted to be a part of the neighborhood, to talk to our neighbors, to make sure they were involved with the film as much as possible so in a way, just by their involvement, [they could] contribute to the story as well.

We’re just focused on the truth as we know it, [which] I don’t think that we’ve been able to see captured cinematically yet. I think that involved being very particular about the locations that we chose to shoot at, and about the production design, which Helen [Peña] was at the helm of, making sure that you understood what the Caribbean home felt like; how it could be both homey and warm and inviting, but also maybe claustrophobic to Xavier and not reflective of what his life is supposed to look like. He was starting to resent the home that he and his wife built. And looking for a new home is a way to prove that he’s going the right direction, that he’s fulfilling his promise, not only to his family, but to himself and how life was supposed to be in America.

A young Monica Sorelle (center) prepares for Little Haiti's Haitian Roots Music Festival (c. 1990s), courtesy the filmmaker.

DLC: I think that speaks to the seductive nature of striving—that myth of the American dream that a lot of immigrant families get really ensnared in. There’s this idea that “we must always be moving onward and upwards.”

MS: Yeah, I think it begs this existential question: “What else are we doing here if we’re not moving up?” I think we’re meeting Xavier at a point of stagnancy.

DLC: What’s interesting to me is that there’s still this emphasis on dreaming and romance, particularly between him and his wife. I’m thinking of this key moment when Xavier asks Esperance to “do a little dreaming” with him as they start thinking about the future. And throughout the film, they’re a couple that’s portrayed as very much still in love even after many years and challenges. Could you talk about the importance of writing and imaging their relationship with that sense of romance and joy?

MS: That was very intentional for Robert and I because it’s not something that we see very often, not just in Haitian films, but also just in immigrant films in general. There’s always tension between husband and wife, whether they’re yelling at each other or at odds. This is the image that I feel like I’ve been fed [through] films growing up, and it’s not something that we wanted to perpetuate.

Personally, I was very struck by Robert’s parents, who are still very much in love, and it’s beautiful to see. And I don’t think that we’ve gotten a chance to see that cinematically. A friend told me about her Haitian parents, who are in their sixties. Late at night, she could hear them giggling with one another, and they’ve been married for 40 years. You know what I mean? They’re friends, they’re partners. They built a life together in this country, and they still very much enjoy each other. And so I think we were just interested in making sure that whatever tension or conflict that Xavier was going through in this film, it was not with his wife.

DLC: I want to hear a little bit about responses to the film. You’re fresh off the energy of the world premiere at Tribeca, and we’re also looking forward to seeing you next month for the closing night at BlackStar

How have audiences responded to the film so far?

RC: One of the things [that’s been] really striking to me is how much the audiences picked up on every single joke. It’s been really stunning to see the film with audiences and be reminded that, “Yeah, there’s so much joy in the movie, and there’s so much comedy in the movie.” And I think that’s been really incredible. And based on what folks have told me, [they’ve] really been able to place themselves in it. That was really important to me when we were making the movie—for folks to not just identify with one character or another, but be able to see themselves both in Xavier and in Junior, for example, or both in Esperance and some of the other characters. 

I got a note from my father after he watched the film that was basically just a huge acknowledgement of the part that he has knowingly and unknowingly played [through] the way that things played out in his life and the way that generational traumas that he’s carried with him have passed down to me and his regret about that. And that was something that I wasn’t prepared for. These characters are based on people that we know, on Monica’s mom and cousin and uncle, and my dad and my mom. 

MS: Yeah, I think it took [my family] a while to process, but I think it became a very emotional experience. A month before the Tribeca premiere, my aunt died. She was a school crossing guard, and I had always based Esperance on her. [Her character] is an amalgamation of a lot of the women in my family but [her being a crossing guard] was specifically for my aunt. And I talked to my mother the next day, and she burst into tears, [saying] “It’s not because she just passed away, but it’s because it’s so crazy how observant you’ve been and how many pieces of our family and of our culture that you’re able to pack into this film so that it could be reflected back to us.”

Chris Renois in Mountains, courtesy Fusion Entertainment.

DLC: I want to shift gears and talk about your working relationship [as filmmakers]. You’ve been collaborating for years now, both on this film and others, and also as part of Third Horizon. How would you say you’ve grown as collaborators? What’s felt most generative and perhaps even most challenging as you’ve worked together over the years?

MS: Well, I think we are very lucky to have met each other. I don’t think that a lot of people get the privilege of having a collaborator that they are on the same page with. Our friends at Third Horizon call us the Wonder Twins, for example. We have the same sense of humor and a lot of the same references, but we also teach each other a lot as we collaborate. And we’re both able to be vulnerable with one another as we write.

I think the timeline of life is non-linear. And so I think even the magic of making Mountains maybe precedes even the conception of it. Maybe Robert and I met so that we were able to collaborate more easily on this film. That’s getting very woo-woo…

DLC: [laughs] Woo-woo is welcome here. 

RC: I think what’s really great is that when we met, we both had the same vision for our careers and storytelling, which is to center Miami and its multiple points of views, to share that with the world in a way that we feel hasn’t been done yet. I think that’s definitely one of the driving forces of our collaboration: our love for the city and our families and wanting to portray them as honestly as possible.

DLC: Thinking about this particular moment for Little Haiti in particular, what are some of your hopes for the neighborhood’s future?

RC: You’re out here with the heavy hitters.

DLC: I do what I can.

RC: I just want [Little Haiti] to be seen and treated with the dignity that the people have imbued it with. 

MS: A few years ago there was a protest [by] artists in Port-au-Prince because Haiti has lost nearly all, if not all, of their cinemas. There’s no place to gather to watch films anymore. And one of the protest signs really stuck with me. It said, “Without cinema, there’s no memory.” And I think that’s my hope for Little Haiti. 

It’s hard to be hopeful for it remaining the stronghold that it used to be and I’m not going to act as though Mountains is going to put a stop to the excavators. [But] I think there’s something powerful in just being able to see yourself and remember, in archiving and knowing that no matter what happens, you built this neighborhood and you did the best that you could to make it home.

Mountains will make its Philadelphia premiere on August 6 as part of the 2023 BlackStar Film Festival.