Mapping Wah Do Dem: Chace and Fleischner Take You There…


By Diane Sippl


We can’t afford four more years of the same tried old theory that says we should give more and more to the millionaires and billionaires and hope that prosperity trickles down on everybody else.  That’s the failed theory that got us into this mess.


Barack Obama, campaign speech


        Hear the words of the Rastaman say:

        “Babylon, you throne gone down, gone down.

        Babylon, you throne gone down”…


        Say one bright morning when my work is over,

        Man will fly away home.


         — Bob Marley, “Rastaman Chant” 

At the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival, filmmaking partners Sam Fleischner and Ben Chace wowed audiences and jury members alike with the world premiere of Wah Do Dem, racking up the Target Filmmaker Award for Best Narrative Feature (with $50,000 cash attached). The Jury observed that this debut feature was a film that “could feel anecdotal, but through its musical shifts and tone and its vision of the world as a newly optimistic place, Wah Do Dem creates a strong and profound emotional narrative.   What follows is in appreciation of the filmmakers’ well-earned recognition and their impressive collaboration with a hard-working and inspired filmmaking collective.

Bluesy News   Wah Do Dem is a light-hearted study in contrasts, at first between young Brookyn hipsters and leisure-class seniors, and then between haves and have-nots, with one of the hipsters poised precariously in-between for comic irony and a moment of enlightenment that could last a lifetime.  Chance falls upon Max (Sean Bones), who is as blessed with Caribbean cruise tickets he won in a raffle as he is easily spurned and dumped by weepy Willow (Norah Jones, of My Blueberry Nights and “Don’t Know Why I Didn’t Call” fame).  Willow’s a narcissist who’s gonna depress anyone she’s ever with,” his buddy tells him.  On the other hand, says another over beers, a cruise is “like a floatin’ brothel full o’ ladies with loot.”  At home in bed with his laptop, it’s a Lykkle David “vimeo” site that Max pulls up, sent to him by Sam Fleischner (Wah Do Dem’s cinematographer and co-writer/director/producer/editor along with Ben Chace).  It’s Max’s own personal gangway to the night-time launch to Jamaica for this innocent abroad.

Monsieur Hulot in Obamaland          Fleischner’s dynamic camera cruises the boat itself. Its interior balconies and winding staircases are lined with hoards of cocktailers decked out in black-tie garb for five tiers of “Guantanamera” jazz, faux art auctions, disco dancing, and loners (Kevin Brewersdorf) on the prowl for “gym-boys.”  The ship’s exterior houses multiple waterways, and in one scene, the camera’s quasi-surreal point of view floats fluidly from the Jacuzzi to the pool to its underwater swimmers to the sea itself, wryly shoring up the redundancies in a steady stream of turquoise.  Max holes up in his room, where he finds online stats that tell him 97% of Jamaicans are for Obama in this mid-election moment.  Inspired, he dons a beat-style ice cream suit and goes onshore to play the slot machines, only to find himself back on board explaining how his “cruising partner bailed” on him, accompaniment courtesy of a Nordstrom-style pianist. He’s an earnest but forlorn Tati sans sight gags.  But the tide turns as Max ventures out again, and this spoof on luxury liners fast becomes a road movie by car, minibus, rowboat, foot, and bike in the picaresque tradition gone humoresque, with all the mockery, parody, and situational reversals that come with the territory. 


Rude Boy Goes Native         Now in his T-shirt and sunglasses, Max heads from the ATM to the jerk stands looking for local brew.  Five island cabbies descend upon him, and then the first of a string of locals who all mirror Max’s new self-image.  A skipping, hopping trickster in a Calypso hat and the same aqua shades Max wears only five times as big, spins around Max, begging, “Just one dance!”  Another local whisks him off to “Mahogany Beach” to see the roots — the real Jamaica.  In his open car, this man’s half of the conversation comes out in scatting jive.  The girlfriend they pick up teaches Max patois — “Ma woman go an’ left me” — and no sooner does Max smoke a joint with them, take a dip in the deep blue sea (with stunning underwater photography as he all but dances with the fish and Reggae), than his backpack and shoes go an’ left him, too.  The patois explanation doesn’t go as far as it needs to this time.  The breakers roll and children play under pink clouds in green water.  “Just say that you like it,” whales the soundtrack…  “You should never do that.  Never, never, never… do that…”


“All Is One”   …may be written on the side of a building, but when Max, now a barefoot, bare-chested pauper without a passport, approaches two American tourists for help, they give him ten bucks and a T-shirt they just bought, scanning and shunning him as one more homeless pariah.  But the locals give him a free bus ride, and the guys on the street give him shoes so he can play soccer with them — until he sees the bus “go an’ left him.”  He’s stranded yet again, but the guys take him to a bar to hang out, where the breaking news on CNN Live is “Obama Wins Ohio,” and with that and the victory, the girls are jumping on him front and back to dance.  An African-American President — it’s a broad stride, but not broad enough to cross the water that washed out the road with the floods after a footballer gives him a bike ride.  A local “celebrity” switching between calls on his cell, from patois with his agent to love talk with his girl, hollers for a boatman to ferry Max to the other side.


In the Name of a Goddess     Carl Bradshaw, a walking archive of Rasta movie roles, is there to meet him. “I been waitin’ for you for a long time… I’ll show you the way.” He refers to Obama as “sunshine — mankind for change.”  A subjective camera bobs with them through a jungle of palms, a hillside of corn, groves of orange trees, the man’s house, and right up through a hole in the roof.  The old, red-eyed sage has the counseling Max needs — “Sometimes material leave you.  Rain destroy my palace…  I rise on the fall of things…  Reach out to the end of the world without movin’.  Stand still yet goin’ everywhere.”  They fry up fish the man caught.  Max retires and the screen turns black, yet in another somewhat surreal scene, his bedside candle takes him across the water in the dark to the cadence of the drums that summon him.  It’s just Max and his reflection under the full silver moon.  He finds eight musicians in a binghi session and sits by their bonfire as the soulful Congos chant the meditative “Fisherman” song.  It’s a pivotal point in the film, and the camera pulls back for a hilltop view of Kingston and then tracks Max en route there.  Slapped-together homes, corrugated tin walls and gates, and a yellow sign saying “Slow” along with another indicating “Funeral Service Supplies” all give Max another point of view.  And the lens turns, from the people Max now looks at differently… to their gaze in looking at him. 


Don’t Forget Me        Throughout the film, whenever Max “gets down” and swoons over Jamaicans at their “roots,” he’s upended by the contradictions that rear their ugly heads.   There is one last character who puts it to him straight: Jamaica has a colonial past, and Max is the oppressor.  Juvie (Mark Gibbs), who “woke up mad, without a breakfast” accosts Max on the street at knife-point, asking him what he’s doing.  When Max replies, “Walking to Kingston,” Juvie retorts, “Are you a mad man?  Are you mocking me?”  What ensues is a sharp and swift exchange, barbed with weaponry and wit, because by now Max is tired and annoyed and feels he has nothing to lose.  Astonishingly, he throws the mockery back at Juvie with taunts, even parody.  But at one point Juvie makes sense: “Listen, man, they will take your life down there… even if you don’t got nothing.  Life is something.  Your life is worth more than everything you lose right now.  Your life.  You’re gonna need my help.”  Of course the kicker is that it turns out Juvie’s not in school because he got kicked out — for fighting.  And then more jive from Juvie (or is it?) — “When me see you, God sent for me to do good for you.  So what goes around, comes around, Yeah?  But don’t forget me.  Just don’t forget me.”  The wheels do go round.  We see Max walk up to the American Embassy from a low angle through the spokes of Juvie’s bicycle wheels, rolling out of the frame in one direction as the foreign cars circle the driveway in the other direction, approaching us.

What They Do            Wah Do Dem is a striking and playful romp on a Caribbean island, a vacation for two that ends up being for only one but also for any virtual traveler.  Yet this feature film debut is a lot more than that.  Experienced cinematographers, artists, and musicians (along with actor/musician/fashion designer Sean Bones), Ben Chace and Sam Fleischner approached their film with a 21st-century style of guerrilla filmmaking.  Set aside the impressive facts that they shot at three locations (New York City, a cruise ship, and Jamaica) working with over 200 extras and a minuscule crew (of 3-5) on a micro-budget of under $80,000, and even that they worked mainly with first-time actors speaking mostly patois but also with some renowned talent — singer/actress Norah Jones, Carl Bradshaw (The Harder They Come and nearly every Jamaican film), and The Congos, a legendary roots reggae collective.    


In the broad sense, Chace and Fleischner wrote, directed, and shot their film “on the fly” — that is, while they had a good 40+ (their reports vary) pages of scenarios they clearly wanted to include, shooting the film themselves with hand-held cameras and natural light allowed them to be very mobile and to improvise with their actors, whether American or local, seasoned or new.  The two filmmakers started with the notion of documenting the people they wanted to show us, in the scenes that they normally inhabit, with a rather Bressonian respect for natural life and people’s inherent values. This led to experimentation, especially in dialogue and acting — to honing a lyrical style that coincided with the musical core of the film and the culture the filmmakers sought to portray, incorporating a rotation of improvised performances in the native tongue that mime the “repeater” drums in a Nyabinghi grounation.  Finally came the storytelling, of natural and social “mishaps” endemic to a postcolonial country that fittingly befall the tourist protagonist, a narration that evolved mostly in a long winter of the filmmakers’ editing thereafter. 


All in all, from that Caribbean cruise for two that Ben Chace actually did win in a raffle came the filmmaking venture for two that Sam Fleishner proposed to him upon his return from shooting a film in Cambodia.  With intuitive, snap decisions and fleet set-ups and camera work, along with the help of local co-producers Katina Hubbard, Mark Gibbs (“Juvie”), and Carl Bradshaw (“The Prophet”), this fast and furious filmmaking duo managed to elicit very unaffected, fresh, novel performances — much like a series of akete drummers’ syncopated, spirited solos in conversation with each other — and craft them into a profoundly precise narrative without losing any of the spontaneity and magical charm that sparked their initiative.


That Touch of Tati     It’s worth a note that footballer-turned-tourist Max, unwitting purveyor of the wrath of First World greed, bumbles along in nearly every frame of the film disenfranchised from the locals as he strives to earn their compassion.  Given his slumped shoulders and disgruntled mug but relentless resilience and inherent charm, it’s hard for us not to recall rugby player-turned-mime-turned-indie filmmaker, Jacques Tati, who transformed himself via tightly choreographed comic vignettes into the gauche loner who suffered the onslaught of American consumer goods and the French social ladder coming to haunt him.  Lampooning France’s politics and its elite on its beaches in August (Jour de fête, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday), Tati often took to the road to debunk highfalutin manners with his mimes and gags, relying (like Bresson) on local lay actors and an episodic, quixotic narrative to allow space for a textured interplay between onscreen music, dialogue relegated to the role of jabber, and parodic performance.


Pictures at an Exhibition, Rasta-Style          The centuries-old cliché of “going native” in cinema, literature, and cultural lore from travelogues to autobiographies finds an unabashed simplicity in Wah Do Dem that is far from simplistic, mainly because its heart is in the right place and its humility is about all that is not left to chance.  Chace and Fleischner are acute observers and avid listeners; yet these skills require more than training.  A social imagination is also at stake, and fortunately, these new filmmakers have both the modesty and the passion to open themselves to cultural difference and shared respect.  With the same healthy curiosity, they explore the rhythms and harmonies of their arts (photography, music, directing of actors, editing), expanding them by integrating them into a new cinematic language reminiscent of a filmmaker as surprisingly lyrical as Jacques Tati and a collective as mesmerizingly spiritual as The Congos.


What Goes Around Comes Around  Wah Do Dem is a celebration of life, its politics embedded in a bravely creative mode of production and an open sensibility that derive directly from the film’s themes of salvation, transcendence, and revelation of the human soul.  Chance (raffle tickets for two when Ben Chace was watching Buster Keaton on an outdoor screen with Bill Frisell playing a live score), trance (the meditative power of a Rasta chant), and circumstance (America’s first black President) may have led this team to etch a lovable character far more possessed by Queen Nyabinghi and her immortal comeuppance than a weeping Willow, but it’s sheer imagination, talent, and hard work (not to mention nerve and savvy) that have allowed Chace and Fleischner to “make the music” of their film.  They aim now to project it in a traveling outdoor cinema in Jamaica among the very people who helped to make that music.



Wah Do Dem


Directors: Sam Fleischner and Ben Chace; Producers: Sam Fleischner, Katina Hubbard, Ben Chace, Martha Lapham, Henry Kasdon; Screenplay: Sam Fleischner and Ben Chace (with the actors); Cinematography: Sam Fleischner; Sound: Kevin Brewersdorf; Editors: Sam Fleischner and Ben Chace; Music: The Congos, Sean Bones, Suckers, John Holt, Lloyd and Devon; Production Assistant: Mark Gibbs.


Cast: Sean “Bones” Sullivan, Norah Jones, Ira Wolf-Tuton, Kevin Brewersdorf, Patrick Morrison, Sheena Irons, Carl Bradshaw, The Congos, Mark Gibbs.


Color, HDCam, 73 minutes.  In English and Jamaican patois with English subtitles.   

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