WELCOME TO PARADISE is carved into the black metal door of an unusually clean bathroom stall I’d stopped in at the Nassau International Airport. I was wide awake and sweating, having worn a very chic (but obviously too heavy) pea coat while flying out of Detroit.
Accompanying me was my cinematographer friend, Tom, along for the ride to cover his first film festival, in the Bahamas no less, and like me, at the ripe age of 18. The only thing I could think of, as I ripped off a long swath of toilet paper to mop the sweat from my brow, were the words etched into the door…
WELCOME TO PARADISE.
And then I remembered to flush the toilet.
The Bahamas International Film Festival is in it’s sophomore attempt, following the success (and disorganization) of it’s debut. This year’s festival boasted the appearance of Spike Lee nearly five months in advance with the plan to honor him with a Career Achievement Award. Although Spike Lee didn’t make the festival (bad weather in the Big Apple, maybe?), the disappointment was tempered by a variety of films, non-stop events and promising filmmakers.
Here are the facts: Among the featured guests of the festival were Anthony Mackie, Rick Fox and Jeffery Wright, the latter of which was also unable to attend.
Among the events, hosted by Atlantis, were dessert receptions (with free buffets and bars), festive parties (with free buffets and champagne) and opening/closing night galas (with FOUR free buffets and TWO bars). Among the films were Zozo, Stander, Among Brothers, Antibodies, The Birthday Boy, The Big Question, Shadowboxer, Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Matador, Broken Flowers, 25th Hour and many, many more. Although the festival lacked Spike, it was able to get out of the dark thanks to the cinematic talents of bright (although, perhaps, yet unknown) filmmakers.
And there I sat, notepad in hand, watching the whole thing unfold.
The festival opened on December 8, with a meet-and-greet for the press and filmmakers. I had already received my press pass, the golden ticket that got me instant access all over the fun-factory that is known as Atlantis. Tom’s first question was, “Where’s Spike?” My first question was, “Where’s the rum?”
I sat outside on the patio at Plato’s, a tony lounge at Atlantis, slouched in my chair, scanning the crowd. Of the festival’s guests, I happened to be one of the few press members covering the event for the second time. Despite my knowledge of film (IMDB is my homepage) and my familiarity with this particular film festival (I toasted champagne with Anthony Mackie, opening night, last year), I’m still regarded as a young “kid” who seems to be looked upon more as a tourist than a journalist.
Regardless of this mistaken identity, the festival’s participants seem to cloak me in, I’ve been told I exude a somewhat confident aura about myself, which apparently entices filmmakers and fellow members of the press to talk to me.
I immediately met Josef Fares, the Swedish director responsible for over 50 short films and four features. He was screening his latest film Zozo. I also met Lee Daniels, the producer of Monster’s Ball and The Woodsman. Lee was showing his directorial debut, Shadowboxer, which stars Cuba Gooding, Jr.
I was able to meet the few members of the press that actually did attend the event, including one from New York and another from Chicago. The place was also buzzing with fans of filmmakers, particularly Spike Lee. These were fans who had traveled thousands of miles and spent thousands of dollars to see Mr. Lee in person.
Despite Mr. Lee’s absence, I was determined to get a story. So there I was, in the middle of everything. The youngest “reporter” at the festival, constantly taking notes and flashing my festival pass, which bore my name bold and strong, hanging over my chest like Superman’s logo.
After the meet-and-greet and hours of studying the festival promotional packet, memorizing names, plots and screening times, I found myself at the Versace Pre-Screening Cocktail Reception. Held at the Cloisters, a scenic garden resplendent with lush foliage, the event offered an opportunity for filmmakers and members of the press to get to know each other. I chatted it up with people while snacking on an array of sumptuous appetizers ornately arranged on buffet tables scattered throughout the garden. Beautiful statues and even more beautiful models, wearing the latest Versace fashions, posed under the green lights that cast their glow over the entire event.
There, I met a Post Page 6 writer from New York who was at the festival with his wife and their baby, whom he cradled in his arms while eating chicken kabobs. Deeper in the crowd Rick Fox, the authentically Bahamian L.A. Lakers star, stood tall in a designer suit, talking to members of the festival’s A-list.
I made my way over, introduced myself and told him I’m a fan of his, having seen him in the Whoopi Goldberg film, Eddie. Rick smiled genuinely and shook my hand.
I then saw Josef Fares again and raised a champagne glass in a toast. I discussed the Bush Administration with Bahamian Gus Smith, director of the short satire on the same topic titled Crude. Later, on the ride to the theatre I sat in front of Anthony Mackie, whom I had interviewed last year, and complimented him on his performance in the Spike Lee directed Showtime movie, Sucker Free City.
That evening, the festival shifted from the Cloisters to the Atlantis Theatre, a huge theatre located in the Beach Tower of the sprawling resort. Broken Flowers was the opening night film. Since I’ve seen it before (alone, after my girlfriend dumped me), Tom and I decided to hit the casino, where we lost our weight in quarters after a long stretch of up and down luck with the slot machines. We did end up getting plenty of free drinks from the friendly cocktail servers.
Following the screening, we headed to Atlantis’ Lagoon Bar and Grill which played host to the dessert receptions. People gathered in the large outdoor patio area flanked with with rows of tables filled with complimentary desserts and two open bars. Tom and I went back and forth between the party and Dragons, the nightclub located in the Atlantis Casino, with side trips to the quarter slot machines in between. We met a guy from Canada, named Matt, who we helped sneak into the dessert reception. He regarded us as celebrities, which made me feel better because I was being shunned repeatedly by the festival’s A-list.
The next day I woke up and enjoyed the complimentary breakfast in the filmmakers lounge, devouring a cinnamon roll, a bagel and a cup of strong coffee.
Tom and I then caught the 12:30pm showing of Josef Fares’ film, Zozo. The film, which follows the journey of a young boy from Lebanon to Sweden, was very well received.
That evening, Caves Village, out on West Bay Street, hosted a Bahamian Themed Night which erupted into a Junkanoo celebration. Dancers and musicians marched through the large open spaces, exciting the crowd who was enjoying food from Ristorante Villaggio and complimentary Heinekens being dispensed by two gorgeous Heineken Girls wearing Santa hats. Rick Fox bobbed his head to the music while everyone else only seemed interested in having their picture taken with him. Anthony Mackie perused the tables featuring hand-made Bahamian arts and crafts.
While enjoying a cigarette in solitude (Tom was chatting with Marq Morrison – director of Into the Air – about the Heineken girls), I introduced myself to Bima Stagg, a stout man with a large beard and shaggy hair. He invited me to a screening of the film he wrote, Stander, which was due to screen at the Galleria, a theatre across town, the next morning at 10:00am. He addressed me as the “one from Detroit” before learning my name and said he would be pleased to see me at the screening, if I could wake up that early. Not knowing if I should be offended or flattered, I accepted and shook his hand.
Waking the next morning at 9, I quietly got dressed as Tom was mumbling something about phone calls in his sleep. I loaded up on cinnamon rolls and coffee (again) before climbing aboard the empty shuttle headed to the Galleria Cinema.
I arrived at the theatre fifteen minutes early, the timing suggested on the back of my press pass. I sat in the nearly empty theatre for an hour before the film started. Bima Stagg acknowledged me and sat in the back.
One hundred and sixteen minutes later I become enlightened. In my mind, Stander was the best film shown at the festival (it went on to win the Audience’s Award). I was thoroughly moved by the performance of Thomas Jane and the directing of Bronwen Hughes.
Since the shuttle back to Atlantis was late and would have further delayed my schedule (I had an interview with Lee Daniels scheduled to start in 30 minutes), I eagerly (maybe too eagerly?) accepted a ride back to the resort offered to me by Bima Stagg. Bima was driving in a private car with Anthony Mackie riding shotgun. I rode along, chatting with Bima about Stander and Hollywood, as I relished the opportunity to get up close with two of the featured guests at the festival.
Upon my arrival at Atlantis, I barely had time to take a shower and prepare for my interview with Lee Daniels. I quickly jotted down a few notes and questions while walking to the filmmaker’s lounge. Tom, carrying his sophisticated GL2 video camera, followed hurriedly behind, smoking a cigarette.
Lee Daniels is the 46-year-old debut director of Shadowboxer, one of five Special Screenings at this year’s festival. Our interview was brief but insightful as the animated director slapped his own face while debating which side of his personality he wanted to express more (his black side or his “queen” side). He also had us laughing when he compared his thick, slicked back hair to that of actor/rapper Andre “3000” Benjamin.
After our interview, I lounged around Atlantis’ Sports Center, where I enjoyed an apple and worked on movie reviews. This was actually my back-up plan after I refused to spend $40 to use a treadmill. I had about an hour to kill before the Spike Lee Tribute Ceremony at 8 o’clock. I thought about the Oscar season that’s quickly approaching, and hurriedly wrote down my picks. Brokeback Mountain, King Kong and Syriana top my list. I also thought about this film festival and the films that may have the potential to be great: Stander, Zozo, Shadowboxer. I also thought about how this festival, which seemed to snub the local media, was actually being snubbed by the major media in return.
I was dwelling on the irony of all this, identifying the bullet that the festival is shooting itself in the foot with, when a bikini-clad beauty (maybe a Versace model from the Cloisters?) pulled up a lounge chair a few feet from me. She noticed my press pass and smiled. I noticed her blue eyes and introduced myself.
Later, I found myself sitting in the second row of the Atlantis Theatre, directly behind Anthony Mackie and Rick Fox, playing with my digital camera and trying to spark small talk with the brunette bombshell to my left. I introduced myself to a couple from Illinois who traveled down to the Bahamas solely to see Spike Lee. Shortly after we received the news that Mr. Lee wasn’t able to make it to the festival, a loud groan filled the theatre and more than a few seats emptied. I just sat back and relaxed as festival founder Leslie Vanderpool introduced Karin Durbin, a film critic and journalist. The audience watched a highlight reel of Spike Lee’s work, including clips from Do The Right Thing, Get on the Bus!, 25th Hour, Jungle Fever and He Got Game, which starred Rick Fox.
After the long, well edited sampling of Lee’s work, members of the festival shared their experiences on working with Spike Lee. Anthony Mackie reflected on his nude scene in She Hate Me. Rick Fox talked about his audition for He Got Game. The crowd, disappointed and possibly aggravated at Mr. Lee’s no-show, watched in boredom. When the question and answer segment started, only one woman had a question, with most people just waiting for the session to end. As soon as the event was over, the theatre quickly emptied, only slightly refilling for the screening of Mrs. Henderson Presents.
Because I had stayed to watch a tribute to Spike Lee without Spike Lee, I missed the screening of Shadowboxer, despite promising Lee Daniels I’d be there.
Disappointed and more than a little irritated, I went to the casino and proceeded to lose a few more bucks. Tom, on the other hand, got hot and won $25. We hung out at Dragons, our press passes dangling around our necks while dancing to ‘okay’ music and making friends with ease. We skipped the Late Night Gathering at the Hard Rock Cafe which I quickly heard was a waste of time. I got to sleep fairly early and prepared myself for the final day of the Second Annual Bahamas International Film Festival.
Sunday, December 11: I had promised John Schwert, the co-writer and director of Among Brothers, that I’d check out the film and interview him and the principle cast afterwards. Although the film failed to wow me, I enjoyed the story and respected the dedication by Schwert. I sat for an interview with him, Matt Mercer and Corey Cicci, the top two billed actors. They thanked me profusely and we stuck around the theatre, talking about nothing in particular (North Carolina basketball, Adobe editing software, people who are jerks). We all caught a shuttle back to Atlantis, where I ran into festival founder Leslie Vanderpool, whose sudden interest must have had something to do with Tom’s footage of Lee Daniels and the festival’s events. I smiled and nodded, never looking up from the book I was reading (American Psycho).
Upon our return to Atlantis I headed over to the filmmakers lounge and ended up sitting around with Eddie Mensore, the writer/director of arguably the best short film at the festival, The Birthday Boy. We sipped Rum Punch, before switching to Heinekens, when Josef Fares and Fransesco Cabras (director; The Big Question) join us. We sat there for a few hours, throwing back drinks and talking about films – from Paul Thomas Anderson to the music of Vincent Gallo – we all seemed to have the same taste. Tom bought a carton of cigarettes for $25 after having paid $6 a pack since we arrived. After toasting our Heinekens and simultaneously cheering “To next year!” our large group walked from the Royal Towers to the Beach Towers and into the Atlantis Theatre.
There, I sat next to Josef Fares and turned Tom’s GL2 on. Tom was outside smoking a cigarette, so I was manning the camera. After a speech by Leslie Vanderpool, the first award was presented: the Spirit of Freedom Award for a Narrative Film. Zozo, Josef Fares’ film, won and I jerked the camera directly into Josef’s face as he smiled and walked past the row of chairs on his way up to the stage. He took a spill while walking up the stairs to accept the award (blaming it on his shoes and the beer). Other winners included Stander (Audience Award), Antibodies (New Visions Award) and La Sierra (Spirit of Freedom Documentary Award).
After the short award ceremony, the film festival closed with The Matador, a great film starring Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear. It was the perfect film to close the festival with; well structured, well acted, sharply directed filmmaking that received uproarious applause.
The festival’s guests were then transported to the Beach Tower’s Ballroom alongside another Junkanoo parade, which filled the hallways of Atlantis with the pounding rhythm of cow-skin drums and ear splitting horns. I toasted champagne with the festival’s best one last time, smiling and laughing, enjoying our final moments together at this year’s festival.
As I watched the palm trees and patches of pavement roll past my small window on my flight out of the Bahamas I was left with pleasant memories of an emerging film festival. Although some of the organizer’s tactics and treatment of the media seemed questionable, the merging of paradise and cinema was the perfect escape from the harsh realities of a vicious Michigan winter. I gazed out the window as the palm trees disappeared beneath the clouds, knowing that when I opened my eyes again, all I’d see is snow covered cars adorned with parking tickets (it’s Detroit, there’s nowhere to park legally).
The Second Annual Bahamas International Film Festival, like all events everywhere, had its ups and downs. Late shuttles and delayed screenings were the biggest complaint, following the disappointing absence of Spike Lee. But the biggest problem this film festival may have had, was the lack of press coverage they received from the international media. Thank God for the local media (like the one I work for) or there’d have been basically no coverage of the festival at all.
Watching the snow fall here in Detroit, all I have now are fond memories of my three days in paradise, where despite being routinely dismissed by the festival PR coordinator, the youngest members of the press core turned out to be among the only ones who brought much needed international attention to the fledgling festival.