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Review: Wah Do Dem

14th September 2010

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At first glance Wah Do Dem seems like a chore of a viewing experience - standard film school indie mumblecore fare, shot in self-aware shakey-cam style by amateurish Brooklynite self-actualising-media-nodes, stinking of nepotism and stunt casting of the filmmakers' hip friends from the music scene.

Wah Do Dem

It tells the story of Max, played by musician Sean Bones, whose girlfriend dumps him just before they were due to go on a Caribbean cruise, which he then embarks on alone, angsting over his loss and trying (and failing) to fill the void with romantic or hedonistic encounters, and experience some of the supposed "real Jamaica" once he arrives there. With a situational script put loosely in place for the 'actors' to fill in with their own "naturalistic" dialogue (you know, like The Hills, or any other leakage spawned from the arse of MTV), Bones proves himself to be much more musician than actor, displaying roughly the emotional range of a doorknob as he stumbles and stutters through his improvisations in disingenuous and awkward fashion. It means it's hard to engage with the character as he navigates his way through the grey-haired cruise ship world and onto the island of Jamaica, where soon enough he's taken to the middle of nowhere and robbed of his money, passport and shoes.

BUT (and it's a big but) while it does to take half the film to get there, it's at this point where it becomes a new entity entirely: a classic hero's journey along a perilous road of trials where no one he encounters is necessarily what they seem. Fittingly cut off from his former affluence and complacency, Max is now a lone foreigner lost deep in an exotic but alien land, sometimes affable and welcoming, sometimes harsh and dangerous. The audience is plunged right there with him, never quite knowing who to trust or what to expect as he makes his way to Kingston, foreshadowed throughout as a dark land of danger for a lone whiteboy where people would take his life if he had nothing else to take; "The city that don't got no pity" as one character describes it.

What makes it so involving is the marked difference between the self-conscious American "actors" and their Jamaican counterparts, who are so natural on camera one can't tell if they're aware this is a work of fiction or if this is just how and who they are. It's this mix of fiction and travelogue around the unfamiliar parts of Jamaica that give a real taste of island life and the abundant characters therein - an involving mix that manages even to draw a more believable performance from Bones by the end.

Wah Do Dem (Jamaican patois for "What's wrong with them", by the way) would have greatly benefitted from more time spent in the midst of this relatively unknown island, and most definitely from a more talented lead actor. But a slow and uninvolving beginning becomes something of a modern day, lo-fi odyssey, which goes some way to doing for the lesser-seen parts of Jamaica what Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries did for South America - though with a lot of ground still to cover.

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