By Don Simpson | January 18, 2011
Directors: Ben Chace, Sam Fleischner
Writers: Ben Chace, Sam Fleischner
Starring: Sean Bones, Norah Jones, Carl Bradshaw,
Kevin Bewersdorf, Mark Gibbs
The story — not of the film itself but of its conception — goes that Ben Chace won a cruise to Jamaica in a raffle and he invited his childhood friend Sam Fleischner along for the vacation. Chace and Fleischner, both young filmmakers, decided to turn the trip into their next film project. Two additional cruise tickets were purchased for their actor Sean Bones and audio guy/actor Kevin Bewersdorf. The foursome sailed for one week; then, once in Jamaica, they were joined by producer Katina Hubbard for two weeks of production.
The narrative of Wah Do Dem starts off quite similarly. Brooklyn hipster Max (Sean Bones) recently won a cruise for two to Jamaica. His plan was to take his girlfriend Willow (Norah Jones, in an all too brief cameo) along with him. But a few days before the cruise, Willow breaks up with him. Max scrambles around to find someone else to be his cruise-mate, but no one wants to go. So, Max decides to go on the cruise alone…
Upon boarding the ship, Max appears to realize that this might not be a good idea. Stuck on an ocean vessel with a bunch of senior citizens, Max suddenly becomes a fish out of water and he clams up. Max spends a majority of the cruise alone — except for the rare occasions that he fraternizes with the crew — still somewhat dazed and confused about being dumped by Willow.
Once the cruise arrives in Jamaica, Max becomes visibly relieved as he makes a beeline for a local hangout far away from the rest of the American tourists. Max clearly wants to be the cool American, the one who befriends and hangs out with the locals, not the ugly American tourist. Max chats up a local guy (Patrick “Blacks” Morrison) at a bar and ends up driving with him and his lady friend (Carole “Sheena” Irons) to a secluded beach, taking a few drags from the guy’s joint along the way. Things appear to be going exactly as planned for Max until he finds himself stranded in Jamaica alone with his bathing suit and nothing else.
Stripped of all of his hipster eccentricities, Max is instantly transformed into an affluent white American tourist who must rely on the generosity of the local residents not only to survive but to have any chance of returning home to Brooklyn. If Max felt like a fish out of water on the cruise ship, his cultural isolation has now been magnified by at least ten.
Max has a long road ahead of him to the American embassy in Kingston. This is by no means the vacation that Max had dreamed of, but he ends up discovering a side of Jamaica that he would have never seen otherwise — the real Jamaica. He plays football (a.k.a. soccer) with some local guys, celebrates President Barack Obama’s election while bumping and grinding at a late-night bar, encounters a red-eyed mystic (Carl Bradshaw) who rambles incessantly about the meaning of life, and stumbles upon a late night jam session by the Congos. Lesson learned: Go with the flow and everything will be just fine…just fine.
While some critics are reading Wah Do Dem as a film about a rich and snobby white kid who we are supposed to have sympathy for as he is taken advantage of by the scary black natives; I think Wah Do Dem makes it very clear that while some Jamaicans do prey on Max’s naivete (he is an easy target) that it is the local Jamaicans who come to Max’s rescue. Max could have easily found himself in a similar situation if he traveled alone to London because it is his behavior and attitude that gets him into trouble, not the people of Jamaica.
Chace and Fleischner make certain that we are aware of the poverty and violence of daily Jamaican life, but Wah Do Dem is simultaneously a love letter to Jamaica’s vibrant spirit. Most Americans only see what American tourists are supposed to see in Jamaica (the same can be said about most Caribbean destinations) and are shielded from everything else. Some Americans may occasionally go off the beaten path, but they still never get to see Jamaica the way that Max does. Max is not permitted to experience the reality of Jamaica and be accepted by its native inhabitants until he becomes void of all of his material possessions and approaches the locals as an equal.
Arguably the best part of Wah Do Dem is the Brooklyn/Jamaican soundtrack featuring music by Sean Bones (including a closing credits duet with Norah Jones), Yeasayer, MGMT, The Congos, Eekamouse, Saber Koti, Santigold, Suckers, Jazzbo, S.E. Rogie, Sister Nancy, Big Youth, Konshens, Funkworthy FM Dubplate, Elephant Man, John Holt, and Mad Professor.
Factory 25 recently released Wah Do Dem on DVD. Check it out: www.factorytwentyfive.com/wah-do-dem