This year, I’m seeing amazing first generation filmmakers bringing authentic stories about the immigrant experience to the screen. This is so important, as it was just a few years ago during the beginning of the Trump presidency that families who immigrated to the U.S. were living in fear that they would be kicked-out of our country, or not welcomed here. In Miami, there is a current situation that is threatening the homes of the immigrant communities with gentrification and rising housing market costs. To boot, with the issues of climate change, it is not safe for people to not be without a home.

Monica Sorelle, a Haitian-American filmmaker, had been seeking a project she could use to make her first feature. She did not have to look far, as she is Miami-based and was inspired by the destruction around her of the immigrant neighborhoods. The film is about a Haitian immigrant family in Miami, and their struggle to hold on to their American dream. We follow their lives individually and together in this heart-felt drama. I got to speak with Monica about the inspiration for making her film “Mountains,” which premiered at Tribeca this year, and was executive produced by Neon Heart Productions.

“Mountains” will be screening at the Black Star Film Festival on August 6th at 8:30 PM. Learn more.

Monica Sorelle

In your bio, it says that Monica Sorelle is “a Haitian-American filmmaker and artist born and based in Miami. Her work explores alienation and displacement, and preserves cultural traditions within Miami and the Caribbean with a focus on the African & Latin diasporas that reside there.”

Can you expand on that? 

I think when I say alienation and displacement, I mean different things. I think about the immigrant experience, for example. And I think about gentrification a lot, or just housing. Living in Miami, I think about climate gentrification, I think about climate change, I think about the water coming. If you see any film coming from Miami – since 2015, well into the next decade – we all have this way of thinking, ‘oh, this is temporary.’ We are on borrowed time living in Miami just because of actual climate change with the sea level rising, the fact that we’re seeing it and experiencing it, and ever since the pandemic, this has been compounded with the housing crisis.

It just came out that Miami has the number one most expensive real estate market in the country. It’s just the discrepancy of how much the houses and rentals cost, and how much we as a society, our immigrant population, make. There is just a huge discrepancy there. I think that a lot of my work focuses on that experience, especially living in Miami with such a huge Caribbean/Latin population. I feel like my interest in my stories hone in mostly on those people and those kinds of stories because they are not stories that I typically see onscreen, and they are so close to me. I’m living it.

Atibon Nazaire as Xavier in “Mountains”

Can you talk about what brought you to actually making “Mountains,” and more about that trajectory?

Ever since I moved back to Miami from film school, I had witnessed those changes in Little Haiti in the same way that I had seen those changes in another neighborhood called Wynwood. It was alarming. I was trying to figure out what to do and how to help and what kind of stories to tell, and see how it could be combative so that we could put a name to it. When I moved back to Miami, I didn’t know what gentrification was, but I felt it. Fast forward four years to 2018, when this local arts organization called Oolite Arts put out a call for a new initiative to fund micro budget films.

My producer Robert Colom and I kind of scoffed at the idea because we didn’t really feel audacious. We didn’t feel like we had a story to tell, and we didn’t know if we had the capabilities of making a feature length film. At that point, we were making a few shorts together, and we were doing well at the festivals. But yes, we didn’t think that was something that could happen to us. We’d kind of make fun of it in the days leading up to the deadline, and we’d throw out ideas that were silly. One day we were in Wynwood together and we were walking around.

At the time, there were houses being demolished every day. I would see families going from living in a house to their houses becoming a parking lot. We were walking to lunch and we saw a demolition worker going to say goodbye to his co-workers, and he crossed this major intersection into the more suburban side of the neighborhood, and I turn to Robert and say, ‘Here’s a feature film idea: what if a demolition worker lives so close to his work sites that he could walk home?’ Robert was like, ‘OK, great, let’s do that.’ So we pulled an all-nighter, and we applied to the program.

I’m so glad you did!

I didn’t grow up in Little Haiti, but my mother, when she first came to the United States, landed in Little Haiti and she worked there. So I spent a lot of my childhood working in Little Haiti. It was really disturbing to me that it could turn into Wynwood, which is this arts district that is totally devoid of its Puerto Rican class roots. I was trying to figure out how I could help this situation. And I was curious how I could use my skills as a filmmaker to make a difference. So it was great that it came out through “Mountains.”

Sheila Anozier as Esperance in “Mountains”

How did you go about finding your three leads?

It’s so beautiful to me how I found these actors. We didn’t do an open call because we needed things that are so specific. I didn’t know how I could put an open call for a Haitian man in his fifties. No one is going to come to that. So at the time, we had an intern thankfully, and we had her scrub through any Haitian films or shows. She also went through actors I was thinking about, and we would have them make reels for us so we could go through those weekly. For Atibon Nazaire, we watched this film called “Forever Yours.” We were looking at the two leads, and as we were watching the film, we didn’t really feel that they fit the characters.

Interestingly enough, the lead of that film ended up playing the brother-in-law, so we were watching and we’re like, ‘I don’t know, this doesn’t feel like a fit,’ and then we get towards the end of the film and there is a scene between the lead and Atibon. This is an old film, so he looks so different – I think he was in his forties at this time and Robert and I at the same time were like, “Who is that?” He only had one scene, but he was so natural. He just looks so comfortable, and the camera really loves him.

I could tell he was a very gifted actor, and it kind of threw us for a loop, because we weren’t expecting to find him in that way. So I had to go sleuthing. He was really hard to find online. Luckily, I saw he was on Facebook and friends with another Haitian filmmaker, who I was going to see that night for my film festival. So we were at this party and I name-dropped Atibon. She said, “That’s my good friend, I’ll give you his number right now.” He was really the only person that we auditioned for the role. He was terrific, more than I ever imagined.

For Esperance’s character, we had way more options. There were more Haitian women in their fifties who did acting than there were men. So we auditioned six actors. It was good, but no one felt like it. I think the woman that I had in my head was so clear to me, and I couldn’t really find her in these other actresses the way that I really wanted to. I had a friend in New Orleans, and she directed a show that had come to Miami. I almost didn’t go, but I decided to go at the last minute, just because it seemed really interesting. And it was a music show. Then all of a sudden, Sheila Anozier comes out – she is a dancer, not an actress.

She starts dancing, and I’m like, ‘She looks just like what I would have imagined.’ Then halfway through the show they give her a monologue in the form of a Haitian folktale, and she was so comfortable and charismatic. Her voice was so sweet, and then I was like, ‘Let me call my friend. I might as well audition her.’ She was perfect, she looked like her, from what she was wearing to her furniture in her house. It was just like, this is my person, even though she had not acted prior to that show. And she was a brilliant actress, so funny and great with improv. She was the one, immediately.

Chris Renois as Junior in “Mountains”

With Junior, I wanted an actual comedian. There are a lot of Haitian comedians, and I was hoping for an instagram star. I saw Chris Renois a year before we started casting on TikTok. I wasn’t even sure if he was Haitian. I just saw his name, and I was like, ‘oh he seems interesting.’ So I just wrote his name down and then forgot about him until we got deep into casting.

So I got in touch with him, and what was striking about him was when he turned his camera on with the zoom, he was standing up, off-book already, as well. He was hungry for the role, and polite, and really respectful of the process, although he also did not have any acting experience. After the audition, he was like, ‘I have a show tonight, do you want to see it?’ And I was like, ‘sure.’ He invited us and we went, and he is the funniest comedian I’ve ever seen. 

I was drawn to his character the most, because I feel he really represents what it’s like to be first gen, an immigrant’s kid. 

I feel like a lot of Americans are drawn to Junior the most. It’s something about him and the story, and his sort of millennial and gen-zness, having to meet expectations when the economy is falling apart. I feel like that is even more of a universal story for non-immigrants than for everyone else. 

What do you hope people see in your film?

I hope they see themselves, even if they are not Haitian, Caribbean, or immigrants, or have this particular dynamic. I think the issues that the family is facing, whether it’s surviving in this current housing crisis, inter-generational issues, this kind of aspirational American dream, are very universal. I think this is a universal story that everyone can find something to hold onto. 

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