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The shady side of paradise

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Aleem Marcus Valentine is used to being seen. He is tall, with the face and physique of a model. He is a model, part-time, when he isn’t working at his chosen career as a chef. The modelling goes back to his teenage years, when his mother sent him for lessons in the hope he would be cured of his “gangster walk.”

“I still have that kind of crawl, it’s a rugged, kind of rough walk I have,” says the 25-year-old, recalling the events that brought him into the cast of The Resort, a short film screening at the T&T Film Festival this month.

The walk has become his calling card for his modelling work. And in general. He is used to hearing he has been spotted around town: “You can’t miss that walk,” his friends say.

In early 2014, director Shadae Lamar Smith was in Tobago casting for a movie project, his thesis project for his master’s in film directing and production from UCLA (University of California).

He had help: local producers Dave Elliott and Ryan Khan; the Tobago House of Assembly supported the project, even sponsoring a casting call on the radio.

“Blessed” is Smith’s description of the THA’s assistance; “perfect partnering,” says producer Marjuan Canady, who hopes The Resort will also serve as a positive example for other filmmakers thinking of working in T&T.

“We cast most everyone from that call,” says Smith of the THA casting call. But there was no male lead until the day he and producer Elliott were driving through Scarborough. Smith spotted someone on the street—just a pedestrian, just someone walking. Just Aleem Marcus Valentine.

“I’m looking at Marcus—he looks like he could be the lead in my film,” recalls Smith, who backed his experience as a director to help even a novice deliver the performance required for the film.

Elliott called out to Valentine from road: “Hey, you need a ride?”

The men knew each other. Elliott had previously tried to persuade Valentine to join a movie project, but Valentine declined. He was building his career in the culinary arts. What other time he had was spent at the gym, the occasional modelling gig, or with his PlayStation. He had no time for movies. Still, this was not another movie role, this was just a lift. He hopped into Elliott’s car.

“Ever done a film?” asked Smith as soon as Valentine was settled.

The Resort addresses a subject not often discussed in polite society: sex tourism, and in particular, women travelling to the Caribbean to seek the romantic attention of local men.

Rent-a-dread, rastatutes, beach boys: what discussion of the matter there is often takes place under frivolous or diminishing labels. Nonetheless, it is a not insignificant part of the informal side of the Caribbean’s economy. The 2006 documentary Rent a Rasta estimated 80,000 visitors to Jamaica become witting or unwitting clients of the island’s sex tourism trade every year.

There are several strands to the discussion of the Caribbean’s beach boy phenomenon: public health; the question of whether visitors, locals, or both are being exploited; even the question of whether a short-term relationship forged on the beach is prostitution at all.

The typical arrangement is usually described as a young, local man connecting with an older, foreign woman. There is not necessarily any formal transaction, but the one party (the tourist) invariably bears the cost of the relationship—meals, drinks, perhaps clothes, sometimes even rent or a stipend. Is that prostitution or dating?

It is not a question The Resort seeks to answer. “I am not interested in judging or drawing conclusions,” says Smith. His interest in the subject was piqued by a more personal experience. No, not that type of experience.

Shadae Lamar Smith is Jamaican, and he is American. Born and raised in Florida, his Caribbean heritage does not necessarily reveal itself unless Smith chooses to make it known.

“I find when I tell people I am Jamaican, something sexy pops into their heads,” he says.

“It seems like people react to me differently than if I said I was from Jacksonville or South Africa.”

Smith is interested in the idea that Caribbean identity has been sexualised and exoticised by decades of aggressive sun-and-fun marketing. This has created a pervasive image of the Caribbean and its cultures in the minds of those being encouraged to visit: “All of a sudden, people talk about sex for some reason.”

Those observations directed Smith to the academic discussion of Caribbean identity, and subsequently toward the literature on the region’s sex tourism trade. On beaches in Jamaica and Tobago, with new awareness he watched relationships form. The Resort examines those relationships from the perspective of the man selling himself to a foreign visitor. And it juxtaposes the experience with other tourism-dependent occupations: housekeeping and the sale of watersports or tour packages on the beach.

Perhaps the varied narrative (the story is told in three vignettes) explains why, at first reading, Valentine thought of his role as “a saltfish. I’m a saltfish man: everybody likes me.” On set, in front of the cameras, tasked with bringing the words of the script to life, he realised the most memorable aspect of his character might not be his general conviviality: “I thought: Woah, this is a man willing to sell love.”

More info:

The Resort’s international premiere takes place September 24, at 9 pm, at MovieTowne, Port-of-Spain, and the film screens again on the following dates:

• Sept 25, 8 pm, MovieTowne, Tobago

• Sept 28, 3 pm, MovieTowne, Tobago

• Sept 29, 6 pm, MovieTowne, POS


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