Shining a light on the insidious child sex trade and the lives it seeks to destroy, director Gabriella A. Moses (“Sin Raíces”) exposes a Dominican community complicit by way of young Desi (Scarlet Camilo), an adolescent girl who dreams of parlaying her nascent musical talents into a full-fledged singing career.

“Boca Chica” takes place in a once serene beachside town, now bustling with foreign tourists. Desi, 12, works at the family restaurant alongside her aunt Nena ( Xiomara Rodríguez) and mother Carmen (Lía Chapman), constantly exposed to unwanted advances and crude comments from older men, both visiting and homegrown. 

Music is her escape and, one day, she stumbles across a group of local rappers that set themselves apart from the scene. Her passions begin to boil to the surface as she seeks to avoid the common fate of growing mature before her time and falling prey to the morally bankrupt adults in her life that encourage her to forgo her innocence for profit.

Moses, who has long used her creative muster to elevate marginalized narratives, was the ideal pick for the project written by Marité Ugás and Mariana Rondón, writers and producer and director of San Sebastian Golden Shell winner “Bad Gair.” She credits cinematographer Micaela Cajahuaringa with helping her achieve the intimate visual language and POV perspective that focused on Desi, allowing an audience to witness the unraveling of her juvenile psyche.

Produced by Sterlyn Ramírez, CEO and founder of the Dominican Republic and New York City-based Selene Films, alongside Robina Riccitiello and Félix M. García, the cast is rounded out by Jean Cruz (“La Noche Más Larga”) and Richarson Díaz (“Mosh).

After a successful world premiere at Tribeca, where it won the Nora Ephron Award, the film is set to screen in main competition at the Huelva Ibero-American Film Festival, taking place Nov. 10-18. Moses spoke to Variety about her debut feature.

Gabriella A. Moses 

Can you speak to the theme of exploitation in the film, not only of young girls but entire communities, and how sex tourism takes a foothold in areas with less resource to combat the phenomenon?

Tourism is king in the Caribbean and it both benefits and burdens those around it. As an artist it’s important to center narratives around protagonists that aren’t historically represented. It’s also important to acknowledge the complexities and nuances in Caribbean communities’ complicity in propagating, upholding and even enabling toxicity. Sometimes traditional ideas need to be eradicated. In the Dominican Republic, in January 2021,  Law 1-21 was approved, which finally eliminated all legal grounds for child marriage, it  safeguards children and protects them from all forms of violence. This was JUST two years ago, the year we filmed ‘Boca Chica.’ 

Machismo culture has long left young women vulnerable to abuse and sex tourism is a branch of tourism so it exposes young women, even more, to the commodification of their bodies and legislation has a role in that allowing more insidious things like trafficking to take place. Trafficking is a global issue happening in far more privileged countries like the States. We need to talk about that. We need to protect our young women.

In “Boca Chica” women are complicit in their own repression. Most notably, Desi’s mother, who’d rather profit than protect her daughter. How did you capture that so vividly, from script-to-screen?

One of the first things I said when I was meeting with the cast is, this film is about secrets and the secrets we keep to protect our home and dreams. Home is often our family and those cycles of abuse present in families are on full display in “Boca Chica.’ We have two matriarchs presented that are very different in their parenting styles and values. That’s largely because they’ve dealt with their trauma differently. ‘Hurt people hurt people,’ is a phrase often used in therapy. Desi’s mother isn’t properly protecting her because she doesn’t know how. She couldn’t protect herself as a child and instead has leaned into her survivalist instincts and selfish ways. Unfortunately, in many families toxic dynamics continue to play out until a cycle is broken, difficult conversations are had and healing can begin. 

Women and children are amongst the most vulnerable members of our societies so it’s no surprise they’re constantly fighting for survival, that’s why women can become complicit in their own repression. We see it play out for women in positions of power who struggle to hold a hand out and create space for other women afraid it’ll be to their own detriment. We know this isn’t true; yet, the narrative lives on so it’s all the truer when it comes to women holding even their own daughters to outdated standards and expectations.

Music is integral to Desi’s escape from the realities of Boca Chica. How did you set-up the music scene that lends her hope and gives her an avenue to express her opinions of despair?

The music in this film was incredible to work on. It started out with Spotify compilations and then led to collaborations with rising stars like J Noa who was 16 at the time and came in to talk to Scarlet Camilo, our lead, about flow and rapping during prep, and then we worked with Nanny Flow (Yeimy Moreta) who is seen in the film as an older female rapper empowering Desi, the protagonist, during the rap battle and later recorded an original song for the soundtrack. It was always important to me to work with young local talent and to give space to what they wanted to say with no strings attached. That way they can express themselves about the issues in the film and their dreams. 

During our first visits to Boca Chica as a team, we met the young male rappers in the film at a barber shop and I was adamant if they wanted to be a part of our rap battle scenes that they were included. We can’t wait for them to see the film when it premieres theatrically in the Dominican Republic in January. 

You call the shoot a homecoming of sorts, are you excited for future projects in the Dominican Republic and are you already thinking of other stories you can explore that reach into your heritage?

The great Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostomi, has a quote I adore and live by, ‘In order to be universal, you have to be rooted in your own culture.’ Although I was born and raised in the States, my mother is Dominican and the root of all of my stories are in the Caribbean since my father is Indo-Caribbean from Guyana. We wrapped on the one year anniversary of my abuela’s death and it was a very emotional moment for me to have told an important, inter-generational story about immigration, dreams and womanhood on the island that bore so many strong women in my family and created a path forward for me. 

Quisqueya will always be a place that I return to. DG Cine (the Dominican Film Commission) and its Cinema Law have nurtured the onset of a rich cinema legacy in the Dominican Republic spanning genres and perspectives. Seek these films out. This space and incentives allowed me as a woman of color to direct my first feature, something I spent around a decade fighting to do in the States. In the States, I kept being told there weren’t resources or space for the stories I wanted to tell. I already had a feature ‘El Timbre De Tu Voz,’ about first love and sisters on the island, in development when we made ‘Boca Chica’ and we’re currently looking for co-producers in Europe and financiers for that film to shoot next year. I also have a Dominican folk horror film called ‘Leche’ that explores santería and is ready to film. It’s safe to say I’ll always have stories to tell that center around the diaspora whether or not they take place on or leave the shores.