While some might find this low-rent documentary intriguing, Judge Bill Gibron found this scattered look at Jamaican culture flawed and flat.
In Search of the Big Bamboo
According to some published reports, as many as 80,000 women from all over the world—America, Europe, Asia, etc.—travel every year to the Caribbean island of Jamaica to have uncomplicated sex with available male prostitutes. These men, wearing the traditional Rastafarian dreadlocks and country colors, offer short-term pleasure for whomever wants it. They are not picky, nor do they instantly frown on those ladies who've decided to skip romance and go straight for the bed. In return, the "boys" are lavished with gifts, money, and, frequently, marriage proposals. Naturally, all this scandal makes the real Rastas livid. Their history is long and their hardships many, yet these beach-cruising playboys give their religion (not to mention their lifestyle) a bad reputation. Director J. Michael Seyfert is out to change all that. He wants to uncover this unseemly practice and prove that the men exchanging copulation for cash have very little connection to the Rastafari faith. Instead, they are what you would call Rent-a-Rasta—ersatz imitations of the real deal.
Beginning as a supposed exposé of the sex-for-sale industry in Jamaica (think How Stella Got Her Groove Back without famous authors or actresses) but quickly devolving into an overview of the Rastafari religion, Rent-a-Rasta is one mess of a documentary. Inside its jumbled presentation are four or five really engaging stories—the history of slavery in the West Indies, the current reparations and repatriation movement, the story of Haile Selassie I and his deification, the current socio-economic climate in the Caribbean, and the notion that fat, older, or otherwise unattractive females worldwide come to this area for the sole purpose of getting their whore on. For about five minutes, director J. Michael Seyfert has us. We are intrigued by the notion of such scandalous trysts, well aware that author Terry McMillan (who first uncovered this female version of the mid-life crisis) is currently dragging her boy-toy through a messy, highly-publicized divorce, and Seyfert introduces us to some wonderfully caddish characters. Still, before we know it, the narrative has moved on. Gone are the puffy confessions of unwanted women from around the world, and in comes the preaching of Jah's love.
Now, there is nothing wrong with this crash course in the peace-and-love-oriented belief system. We hear impassioned pleas from regular followers, as well as the frequent dismissal of "false Rastas." Important names in the religion are given their moment of historical significance, and we even witness a good-natured debate among a group of men over who is the true savior—Jesus or Haile Selassie I. However, when you name your movie Rent-a-Rasta and center your entire PR campaign on an in-depth study of this peculiar form of prostitution, a mere mention at the beginning and end of your film is not good enough. Such bait-and-switch strategies haven't worked in the past, and they aren't about to work in our current cultural climate. This is not to say that the material Seyfert is presenting is dull, or even deceptive. Had he entitled his documentary Rasta Today, everything would be just fine. He could include the history lesson and the gigolo issue and not be accused of some sort of cinematic con.
In fact, why bother with the poor, impoverished men who decide to sell themselves? We learn nothing about their lot in life—except that they are indeed poor and impoverished, with very few avenues for advancement in Jamaica. They don't discuss the intimate side of what they do (all offer up a chivalrous variation on "not kissing and telling"), nor do they have many firm feelings about the women who use them for personal pleasure. So again the question comes to the fore: Wouldn't it be better to discuss Rastafari, its various factions, its divided views on repatriation, and the basic tenets of its belief system, and leave the rest alone? Why not address the dreads, the strict diet and leisure mandates (pot = OK; alcohol and tobacco? No way), and the varying influences on the rules and regulations. The idea that smoking "ganja" came from Hindus after all, and many of the religions more stringent codes were derived from a combination of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. We hear how the Rastas refer to themselves as "Jews" (in a more metaphysical sense) and how people who claim to be Jewish are, in their mind, less than devout. They consider such an ethnic term the same as referring to someone as girl-ish, or child-ish—like a girl or child, but in fact not really one at all.
Such confrontational comments add a refreshing bit of energy to what can occasionally feel like a by-the-book biography of an influential man and the movement he founded. Seyfert even avoids many of the island's more picturesque elements (beaches, waterfalls, mountains) to focus on Rasta temples and up-close compositions. Consisting mostly of fabulously expressive faces, we feel both the happiness and the hardship beaming from every single person interviewed. Too bad there's not much more to the film's basic visual style.
Since the true DVD version of the title was not available for review (what this critic received clearly looks like a homemade DVD-R created for promotional purposes), the technical specs discussed here may be different for national distribution. The 1.85:1 non-anamorphic letterboxed image is crisp and clear, the product of an excellent digital camera creation. There is no flaring or bleeding, and the amount of detail is delightful. The soundtrack, featuring wonderfully atmospheric dub and reggae is presented in a Dolby Digital Stereo Surround mix that is bass-heavy and mostly midrange. The one thing missing that is definitely warranted is a set of subtitles. Sadly, many of our featured figures speak in an island accent so thick that it's near impossible to catch everything they say. A translation would help to understand the many contradictory points being made by everyone involved. Add in a trailer and some information about the soundtrack, and you've got a nice, if nominal, publicity piece. If this is an example of the final DVD, however, Yeah But/ Not Now Productions has a lot of work to do—both with the added content and the film itself.
Indeed, the crazed cross-purposes presented here will leave many viewers more flummoxed than informed. It's rare when a filmmaker falls into a treasure trove of material like J. Michael Seyfert did when he decided to explore the tropical sex trade. Too bad he had to jump off on every tangent he ran into along the way. It renders Rent-a-Rasta confusing, and in the end, unexceptional.
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