Saturday, February 06, 2010
The audience at the Roxie Theater was overwhelmed on Feb. 4 by “Wah Do Dem,” the stunning opening night film at the San Francisco Independent Film Festival. The movie, which means “what they do” in Jamaican patois, traces a vacuous hipster’s transformation into a real person as he loses most of his clothes and walks barefoot across Jamaica. The film was a big hit in Jamaica and won the Juror's Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival and awards at the London, New Zealand, and Vancouver festivals.
Brooklyn hipster Max, played by musician Sean Bones, is involved with Willow, played by singer Norah Jones who has sold 17 million
CDs. Bones is a composer and singer who resembles a brunette, rough-around-the edges Rick Schroeder. He is currently on an extensive tour with his band supporting his reggae-influenced pop album “Rings.”
The film is gay-tinged, and sexy Bones aroused gays in the audience. The festival has not had a full-tilt, blatantly gay film since “Gypsy Boys” (1999), which was filmed in the Castro. When the man-on-man kissing scene from “Gypsy Boys” was shown during the festival’s opening ceremony, there were a few knuckle-draggers yelling “What the fuck?!” as if to prove they were straight.
Bones was a better choice than the original casting choice of a Broadway actor. The part that Bones plays is a realistic ordeal that was potentially dangerous.
Max’s girlfriend Willow dumps him just before he was to go on a cruise he won in a contest. His friends can’t jeopardize their jobs, so Max goes solo on the voyage to Jamaica. The contrast between Max and the other passengers is glaringly obvious. He is sleek and in his early 20’s and they are 3-4 times larger and 3-4 times older. The directors give the audience carefully filmed views of most of Max, since he spends much of his time on the ship in his cabin in his underpants and later walking in just short shorts.
When Max leaves his cabin, he’s approached by a juggler who seems to want to get closer, and a single passenger, also a man in his 30s, who obviously wants to get a lot closer. There is measurable homoerotic tension that Max dispells by moving away.
The film is a cautionary tale for people who want to get the pulse of the people and get away from their fellow travelers while on vacation.
Just about the worst that befalls a tourist in Jamaica, or even in San Francisco, descends upon Max. In most locales there are seemingly friendly types who are really grifters who scheme to separate visitors from their property and their dignity.
Max loses all of his clothes except for his shorts and then realizes to his horror that he must travel with no money across hundreds of miles to reach the American embassy in Kingston after his ship sails without him. He's able to beg a jitney ride to the interior of the country, and then is ditched again.
In contrast to the thieves, the small mountain-top community where he's abandoned charmingly accepts Max through the universality of soccer and the tourist’s affability. He’s given a T-shirt and sneakers, fed, invited to their bar, and then coquettish young women dance intimately with the lost young American visitor.
The high point of the film occurs when Max meets up with an enigmatic mystic played by famed and venerable actor Carl Bradshaw of “The Harder They Come,” who guides the visitor through a banana forest to his home where he is mesmerized in a hallucinatory spell. Walking shirtless again, and carrying a torch, Max finds himself at a ravine where one of Jamaica’s most famous bands, The Congo, is rhythmically chanting and beating on drums.
Enlightenment for Max comes when he realizes that his narcissism and self-indulgence were placing barriers between himself and the people he cares about. At this point there is an impulse to not only marvel at the changes Max is undergoing, but also to get a CD of the film soundtrack, available soon at wahdodem.com/music.
A ride on the back of a scooter helps Max for some of his journey.
And a young man who keeps trying to rob him at knifepoint — which is ridiculous since he is obviously destitute — eventually guides him to the embassy in Kingston.
Many of the neighborhoods chosen for filming are dangerous, but directors Sam Fleischner and Ben Chace impressed the locals with their strong need to relate to lives of the people of the island, so they were not robbed. They were also modest at their screening Q&A, as if the performers, who were mostly non-actors, just presented their natural talents without direction. Highly-regarded festival programmer Anita Monga gave them sparkling compliments for their high-quality creation and their fans are eagerly awaiting their future productions.
The San Francisco Indiefest has been produced by intuitive event genius Jeff Ross since 2000, and since he is a fan of diverse films, bands, and wild parties, that is what is heaped onto the social schedules of the hordes of festival-goers. And the festival is a success year after year because of the promotional efforts of the Karen Larsen Associates PR company.