In the Paradise trilogy, Australian director Ulrich Seidl divides contemporary European womanhood into three parts: Love, Faith and Hope.
As delightful of a premise as it sounds, this series of films is no Eat, Pray, Love. In fact, most startling, and controversial of the narrative is “Paradise: Love,” a film which follows the sexual misadventures of Teresa, a 50-year-old white Austrian single mother, who explores Kenya through – and on the bodies of – young African men. Unsurprisingly, the film has hit a nerve for some as it highlights another side to the real life sex tourism industry, in which young men in mostly the Caribbean and parts of Africa earn their livings from the fetishes of older and wealthier folks, and in this case, white women. While it is unknown for sure how pervasive this side of the sex trade has become, this article in Reuters suggests that as many as one in five single women visiting Kenya from rich countries are in search of sex: “Emerging alongside this black market trade — and obvious in the bars and on the sand once the sun goes down — are thousands of elderly white women hoping for romantic, and legal, encounters with much younger Kenyan men. They go dining at fine restaurants, then dancing, and back to expensive hotel rooms overlooking the coast.”
The old adage is that money can’t buy happiness, however, in Paradise: Love, we are shown how the subversive nature of capitalism can turn entire countries and its inhabitants into mere commodities for someone else’s attempt at happiness. Teresa, along with three of her other middle aged girlfriends, arrives in Kenya and are welcomed aboard a chartered bus, which will take them from the airport to their beach resort. It is in route to the hotel that the women are taught by an enthusiastic, smiling older Kenyan guide a few key Kiswahili words, which will make their stay in the tropical “paradise” more pleasant: “Djambo,” which means “hello” and “Hakuna Matata,” which we all recall from The Lion King, loosely translates into “no worries.” A few hours after their arrival (as well as some drinks at the bar with her girlfriends and a quick wardrobe change into a swimsuit), Teresa finds herself alone on the beach, surrounded by barefoot hustlers carrying cowrie shelled necklaces, hand-woven bracelets and pocketbooks. The young men rush her, shoving their goods in her face, while vocally clamoring over each other with sell pitches peppered with the familiar salutations of “Djambo” and “Hakuna Matata.” The situation is very well-known to anyone who has traveled outside of the Western World, particularly to places which are economically marginalized. The hard sell. It is chaotic, unnerving and very bothersome. Yet at the same time, being surrounded by extreme poverty – even in places deemed as paradise – can bring a certain level of empathy and understanding. In a country like Kenya, where 45 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and is classified as low-income by the World Bank, everything is a hustle and everything is for sale.
Yet Teresa is not as empathetic or unfazed by the dire circumstances of the hustlers, and actually follows a couple of them back to their homes for paid sex and romance. The romance part is purely subjective. While the Kenyan men guide her around town, teaching her how to do the local dances, treating her to local edibles and whispering expressions of undying love in her ear, the reality is that the men she encounters don’t know how (or want) to be romantic. In one awkward scene, Teresa tries to instruct her partner for the night the proper way to caress her breasts. “You have to first see through me to my heart,” she tells him. But the Kenyan man looks on confused about what exactly she means. Teresa is annoyed but plays into it; mainly for the adventure, which is illustrated by the scene in which she takes a picture of the young man’s private parts as he sleeps. After their late night romp, Teresa falls asleep undressed under a mosquito net. Her young Kenyan lover stands around, smoking a cigarette, watching and waiting for her to rise.
The waiting game is probably the most striking element of the film. In one of the most haunting scenes in the film, Teresa and her girlfriends join a line of middle age white Europeans bathing in the sun on the beach. They lay mostly still and silent out on chaise lounges, half unclothed with their pinkish, pale skin glistening in the sun from a combination of sweat and whatever oily application they applied to get a more even tan. They are massive and look like beached whales. Their size is most marked when compared to the throng of young Kenyan men who stand at attention waiting to serve them. The men stand on the other side of a diving rope, which is guarded by an older Kenyan man in an oversized military uniform. They stand silent and undisturbed, waiting. Like servants dutiful to their masters, they wait. Or like patient hunters stalking their prey. It is really hard to tell at this point who is being exploited here: the people looking for cash or those looking to purchase fulfillment? But we do know that only when the white Europeans rise from their sun-basking do the men come alive again.
This same scenario is repeated several times in the film, including in one scene, which transports the once sun-bathing white Europeans into the resort’s lounge. Now fully dressed, they sit around small nightclub tables, smiling eerily as they listen to a Kenyan band play them some traditional local music. The band, whose members are dressed in matching Zebra stripes, in turn clash horribly with the Zebra striped stage curtains. The music is both beautiful yet performed with little emotion. It is that scene, which reminds me of a childhood birthday party I once had at Chuck E. Cheese’s. I stood around continuously feeding a bunch of quarters into a machine, which when fully compensated, would make the Animatronic robot mouse band come alive and play a birthday song for me. I remember being a kid feeling amused and then eventually disenchanted as once the time on my money ran out, the stage lights went dim, the music stopped, and the once smiling and chipper robotic mouse band slumped over into motionless inanimate objects again. In Paradise: Love, Kenya is Chuck E. Cheese’s and its inhabitants will sing, dance and cater to your every whim – just as long as your quarters don’t run out.
In the ’90s, French filmmaker Laurent Cantet released Heading South, a film about wealthy white women and their hired Haitian suitors (for those interested in watching, this film is currently streaming on Netflix). One of the most compelling characters in Cantet’s film is Albert, the head waiter at the resort. He is from a long line of Haitian patriots who fought probably against the American occupiers, for whom he called animals. In one part of the film, Albert is discussing the shame his long deceased grandfather would feel if he found out that he was serving whites. However, as he poignantly states of his dire situation, “This time the invaders aren’t armed; but they have much more damaging weapons than cannons: dollars!”
The ending of Paradise: Love is not as jaded as Albert in Heading South. I won’t spoil it for you (because I do think it is well worth the watch), but it’s clear that there are some things that money and privilege can not afford. Moreover, even through oppression, the oppressed do have their limits and will exercise their right to resist.
For those in the NYC area, the Paradise trilogy is now screening at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street (between Broadway and Amsterdam). Tickets can be purchased at both the box office and online at www.FilmLinc.com.