Love Behind Bars
Julián finds love and a reason for living in the Dominican Republic’s Najayo Prison. His romance, with fellow prisoner Yanelly, develops through sign language and without the knowledge of dozens of guards. What starts as an institutional romance quickly becomes something altogether different. Julian (Jean Jean) arrives at the Najayo Prison and is constantly hazed. To earn his keep he serves as a cook and repairs equipment. For protection he links up with Manaury (Emilo Candelario), a jailhouse powerbroker that deals drugs right out of the kitchen supply cabinet. Manaury is in love with Yanelly (Judith Rodriguez), a prisoner in the women’s compound across the way and they exchange notes, pictures, and soiled panties through a complex system of smuggling when some craftsman are sent to work in the women’s area.
The lovers communicate with each other through sign language, under the guard’s radar, trading glances and flirtations. Manaury is on the outs with Yanelly, allegedly for flirting with other women while she was in solitary confinement and this forces Julian to work to smooth things over.
Jose Maria Cabral directed drama and he shows us that institution have a code of institutional behavior as does this prison is no different.. The desire becomes physical when Julian is dispatched to fix a faulty air conditioner in the women’s prison and is able to steal a kiss while Yanelly’s friends create a small distraction. Yanelly is reprimanded for participating in what officials call “pecker talk” with the men on the other side. She will soon be out and free to do what she wishes once her divorce is settled. Her plans include being with Julian.
“Woodpeckers” explores desire from afar and we see how a passing glance can make one’s day. The stifling claustrophobia of the prison settings infuses every frame. When he arrives at the prison, Julian quickly learns the sign language (“woodpecking”) that the inmates use to communicate and flirt from afar with the female inmates at an adjacent penitentiary.
When Julián himself catches Yanelly’s eye, tensions escalate between Julián and Manaury, and the men are relocated to an even more oppressive prison. There, a newly freed Yanelly visits as passions and a prison riot erupt.
The presence of actual inmates underscore the harsh boundaries the lovers struggle against. Their efforts to transcend their station leads to a stark climax that is a silent, anguished and haunting cry of the heart.
In the Dominican Republican, prisons suffer from brutal punishment, terrible overcrowding and crumbling living conditions that come from having too many dangerous men in close proximity to one another. Once someone is convicted most of society doesn’t really care what happens to them.
Julian is a petty thief who gets arrested for stealing a motorcycle. As is the custom in the Dominican Republic where he lives, he goes to jail where prison conditions are inhuman with overcrowding, a lack of basic human facilities, brutal discipline is enacted by brutal guards and of course surrounded by hard, violent prisoners.
Julian wants to keep to himself and just do his time but he finds that increasingly impossible. Eventually he falls in with Manaury, the kind of guy who can get things for you but he has a hot temper and is borderline psychotic. He introduces Julian to woodpecking through which romances bloom and prisoners fall in love with one another.
The movie is gritty and realistic and we get a sense of the overcrowding and volatile conditions. It spins around the relationship between Yanelly and Julian. Once someone goes to prison, it is as if everything starts from zero. The film does the same.