WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
The short fiction film The Resort, directed by Shadae Lamar Smith, and the fiction feature Sand Dollars, directed by Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán and winner of the Best Fiction Feature prize at the ttff/15, screened at the Festival last Thursday 24 September. Our blogger, Aurora Herrera, attended the screening, where Smith and Guzmán were present.
The Resort comprises a series of three vignettes that follow a young Tobagonian man as he sells love for a living. The film, directed by Shadae Lamar Smith, had its international premiere at the ttff/15.
Smith was born in Miami to Jamaican parents. He has a BA in Theatre from Fordham University in New York City, and is completing an MFA in Film Production from UCLA. The Resort is Lamar’s final project for his programme at UCLA. He explained that he had heard about sex tourism in his parents’ native country of Jamaica, and in Trinidad and Tobago.
“It’s a topic that I’m definitely interested in because when people talk about sex tourism it’s really focused on women and I think that it’s a big issue for men too,” he said. “When I first came here to Trinidad and Tobago, I heard about how it was affecting not only these men but the families associated with these men, especially with regards to STDs being on the rise.”
When asked why he didn’t probe deeply into the emotions of the male protagonist, Smith responded by saying that given that it was a 15-minute film, he felt that he did not have the time to give the issue its proper status.
“I thought it was an extremely complex issue and I think that was not something that could have been presented in 15 minutes of film,” he said. “So I said, let me take more of a clinical approach and have people draw their own conclusions based on that. I’m showing pretty much glimpses into this life instead of trying to give you this deep nuanced approach in 15 minutes.”
The film, which was shot on 16mm film, was dappled with wonderful bursts of colour, giving it a raw and vibrant ambience. The wide shots of the landscapes in and around Arnos Vale and Pigeon Point in Tobago were visually enticing.
“I didn’t look at directors first,” Smith said, of his influences. “I looked more to Caribbean art and the way the more colourful pieces and landscape pieces were presented and that’s how I designed my look. Then from there I looked at directors. I looked at the director of The Harder the Come [Perry Henzell], they shot on 16mm and I wanted to shoot on 16mm as well. I like the way that colour is represented in the 16mm format.”
The film, which was shot in conjunction with the Tobago House of Assembly, obliged their request that the cast be at least 75% from the isles of Trinidad and Tobago. The local cast featured Shea Best, Aleem Marcus Valentine and Cassandra Bonaparte and Stephen Hadeed Jr.
“This was amazing because I wasn’t going to fly people over here form the US to shoot a film,” Smith said. “It was too much money and it loses some kind of authenticity.”
Sand Dollars has gravitas. Inspired by the novel of the same name by Jean Noel Pancrazi, the film explores the relationship between Noelí (Yanet Mojíca), a young, impoverished Dominican woman and Anne (Geraldine Chaplin), a much older and richer French woman. Their interaction unfolds against the backdrop of Las Terrenas, a gorgeous, verdant tourist haven in the Dominican Republic. After three years, Anne is unconditionally in love with Noelí, even though she is aware that Noelí is using her for financial support. Cárdenas and Guzmán are sensitive in their portrayal of the complicated exchanges between the native and the visitor, allowing the audience to experience the deeper layers of these relationships without the garish use of words like prostitution and solicitation.
The film—which has been submitted by the Dominican Republic to the Academy Awards for best foreign language film—is beautiful. I was captivated from the very first frame, where we see the bachata musician Ramon Cordero plaintively singing the song “I Live in Grief”. This underscored my expectations of the emotional resonance of the film and for sure, Cárdenas’s and Guzmán’s work is remarkable. While one would assume that a serious relationship between these two women would be delusional given the contrasts between them, the co-directors’ brilliantly sew gentle hope into the story, suggesting that it is possible the Noelí has feelings for Anne as well.
Here is an excerpt of the Q&A session with Guzmán.
How did the idea [for the film] come about? Did you first read the book and decide that you wanted to make a film, or did an idea come to you before you read the book?
It was two things. The genesis of the film was first the place. We usually think about where we want to shoot before we think of the story or the characters. My husband who directs with me, Israel Cárdenas, is from northern Mexico and I’m from the Dominican Republic so we have to choose where we want to shoot our next project. We shot Jean Gentil (Best Fiction Feature, ttff/11) in the northern part of the DR. I’ve seen it develop from a fishing town and now it’s one of the most touristic places in the DR. French, Italians, Germans, Haitians all mix there. We were sure when we found the book we would read it with double interest. It took some time for us to discover our own feelings about the book. I sort of related to the foreigners’ point of view more than to the locals’ and I asked [myself] if I was like a foreigner in my own country. This made me very curious to direct this film.
The second thing was the music. Bachata music is the soul, the roots of Dominican music. It’s like an interpretation of bolero that Dominicans from the countryside play. In Spanish we say the word despecho, which means “a torn heart” and it refers to men who have been treated badly by women and they want to complain but it is something that can be danced and I thought that that is very much like the Dominican people where something terrible can be happening but they have a smile on their face.
The main characters in the book are men but in the film they are women.
That took a while to happen. We did write the first, second and third [drafts of the script] based on the novel and when we heard that Geraldine Chaplin liked Jean Gentil, we suggested that she would do a secondary role [in Sand Dollars]. Then we thought, “Why keep looking for an older male actor when [we] have an older French woman?” So we said, “Let’s change the script and see what happens.” We did it and we were empowered with the script and felt that now it’s now our story.
[Geraldine] Chaplin visually looks like death; she is so stark. You almost have a visceral reaction when you see them together.
This was something that we had in mind from the beginning. We talked about the dying animal. She looks sick and her days are counted and the girl is sort of the contrary. She is alive, she is beautiful, and she is shining.
I felt sadness watching this film. You can see that Chaplin is torn about the girl. What were you hoping audiences would feel from watching this film?
Every audience sees the film in a different way depending on the baggage that they carry, so depending on what you’ve lived you will see it one way. So there is no one specific message.
How does the film impact you?
It is hard to say how it impacts me because I have made it, I heave crafted every piece of it, Israel and I. Time will tell. I need more distance.
You can see The Resort and Sand Dollars again on Tue 29 September, 6.00pm, at MovieTowne POS.