Interviews

Interview With J. Michael Seyfert, Writer/Director Of The Film "Rent A Rasta"

Written by Xavier Murphy

Q: How did you come up with the idea to do a documentary film on “Rent A Rasta”?

A: The origin of Rastafari and its eventual co-opting as the commercial identity of Jamaica is a very interesting story. I have wanted to visit Jamaica for years and at one time I could see its lights from the south eastern shores of Cuba where I did a previous film. I have also been intrigued by Rastafari culture, to this day very much underestimated. When I read about “rentable rastas” on some websites and British women posting questions about hooking up with Jamaican men on their upcoming vacations, I started developing this project together with my son Bunker, who’s a film student at Drexel . I was perversely amused by the fact that the American dollar would not stop at anything and turn even the most innocent, marginal and most remote cultural group into a sex-ride in a tropical Disneyland setting.

Q: When will the documentary be released?

A: World Premiere is Oct 14, 2006 in Portsmouth, at the New Hampshire Film Expo and subsequently passionriver.com will assist in the distribution of the DVD. Free Speech TV also bought a license and will be broadcasting the film via satellite on Dish Network 9415, of course you can buy DVDs direct at www.rentarasta.com

Q: Are you currently doing the film festival rounds?

A: Yes, France, Germany, UK and USA/Canada are the target markets. So far we have received positive vibes from individuals but solid rejection from UK events and distributors, who found the film mostly offensive to QE1 and her slave masters.

Q: What do you hope to achieve with the documentary?

A: Stir controversy. Rent a Rasta is essentially an indictment of the Western World from the perspective of the Rastafari. After 450 years of red, white and blue slavery and poverty we now abuse their economical disadvantage to promote Hedonism resorts, Bob Marley t-shirts and sexual gratification, as in this case, benefiting mostly older, chubby and unattractive white broads vacationing with the “big bamboo” as and integral part of their Jamaica experience. While the Negril Chamber of Commerce does not condone “rastatution” you certainly will not find many dreads working in the hotel industry or in Wayne Cumming’s offices for that matter.

Q: What is the main focus of the film? As the writer of the film what angle of the Rent a Rasta scene did you want viewers to see?

A: One reviewer wrote “the film uses female sex tourism as a segue to expose the main issues surrounding contemporary rasta existence but is not exclusively about either. Another reviewer complained about “bait and switch”. I see Rent a Rasta as a tapestry of four engaging issues woven around the theme of sex tourism, a product of slavery. Rastafari is a movement so persistent that all of the effort and deception of the “blond and blue-eyed power” structure has failed to stamp them out. When was the last time the Bobo Ashanti for example had the opportunity to go out and make a film about their issues? To a minor degree I think we did this for them. My very personal sense of social justice compels me to make films from the subject’s perspective, especially those who have no particular voice in the global context.

Q: Was any of the information you learned during the documentary surprising?

A: Yes, it was edifying to meet many very articulate and thoughtful elders who
would radiate with spiritual conviction and kindness, while they lived in ramshackle dwellings with barely a pot to cook with. Compared with the misery and poverty I see in Mexico for example, where ignorance and tv novelas smother every cubic centimeter of grey matter, the Rastafari I met were intellectually on the ball and nothing short of wise men, and not a single bureaucrat within the Commonwealth can claim to have contributed anything to their advancement.

Q: Did you feel any empathy for the men who are “Rent a Rastas” or the women who use their services?

A: “Sex for food”. Sure. All whores are human, Laura Bush is human. Who wants to work at Burger King for 80 dollars a week while watching Anna Nicole Smith jet her poodle around in a LearJet? “Sex tourists want to feel loved or valued or cared for, or to feel beautiful and able, or to feel kind and generous, and they do not feel any of these things back home.” These sentiments, of course, highlight much that is very wrong with North American/European societies – the way in which bodies are constructed as beautiful or ugly, the refusal to recognize people with physical disabilities as sexual beings, the sexual value that is attached to youth and the class inequalities which deny people the opportunity to be generous.

The sex tourist resorts they visit are like Disneyland because here, they experience themselves as desirable and oh-so-successful. This feat is achieved by either ignoring the massive imbalance of economic power between themselves and their local sex partners, or by interpreting it in ways which do not suggest that their partner is acting on a purely instrumental basis.

Q: How do you approach people on such a private taboo project?

A: Dr. Jacqueline Sanchez Taylor, Sociologist and Lecturer at the University of Leeds had already done very extensive research on female sex tourism in the Caribbean, investigating prostitution in the informal tourist economy in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic . Her research and publications address issues on race, gender, class and sexuality and how these intersect with global economic inequalities to shape informal sex tourist industries in developing countries, Jackie was very generous in making her material available for this film.

Q: Do you think the race plays a big role to the women as the economics do to the men?

A: In Jamaican culture, they will tell you, white bodies are valued over black, age doesn’t matter, obesity is a sign of wealth and sex is natural. As one forty-five year old white woman from Chicago said of Jamaican men: “They are all liars and cheats…….. American women come to Negril because they get what they don’t get at home. A girl who no one looks at twice gets hit on all the time here, all these guys are paying her attention, telling her she’s really beautiful, and they really want her…They’re obsessed with their d****. That’s all they think of, just p**** and money and nothing else…”

Q: Based on the clips to the documentary some of the women are very frank in their intentions on why they visit Jamaica. Were the men as frank as these women?

A: Men love to boast, so that was not a problem.

Q: We have all seen the movies “Pretty Woman” and How Stella Got her Groove. Were there any genuine love stories? Do you think some of your footage could be of genuine couples who will no be tagged as a part of the “Rent A Dread” scene?

A: I think Hollywood and Genuine is a hilarious oxymoron. Naturally there are love stories and happy marriages among the “sex for food” varieties, but they were not our focus and would probably easier to be found off the island rather than locally.

Q: Do you believe you captured all you wanted in 45 minutes? If you had more time what would you have added to the documentary?

A: Of course I would have liked to come out with a feature length documentary, but our budget was very tight and while we could have featured lengthy interviews, we decided to focus on producing a relatively fast-paced overview of contemporary Rastafari culture and issues as opposed to an in-depth treatment of any singular theme . Rent a Rasta is really only a glimpse into a paradise laced with cultural misunderstandings and socioeconomic inequities.

Q: You did extensive work with “real” Rastafarian on this documentary. What were their impressions of the “Rent A Rasta” scene.

A: Essentially the great majority of our time was spent with interesting Rasta elders telling compelling stories and offering uncanny reasoning. We visited all four corners of the island, and spent only two days hanging around the beach in Negril dealing with “rentables”, who of course did not consider themselves as such. “Galice” was the preferred term (a man who “loves” women). I can not find any ethymological reference
to such a word, but those we would identify as “gigolo” preferred the more ambiguously positive connotation of “galice”.

Q: What are some of the deeper issues you see if this trend continues in Jamaica?

A: Jamaica is one of the poorest countries in the Caribbean receiving 1.4 million tourists last year.

Since the 1970s, world financial institutions have encouraged indebted nations like Jamaica to respond to economic crisis by developing tourism.

The International Monetary Fund agreements and World Bank structural adjustment loans, that the Jamaican government entered into have served to swell the prostitution labor market, for the policy packages tied to these loans have had a devastating impact on the poor with massive currency depreciation and a concomitant drop in the price of labor.

North American and European tourists’ very presence in the Caribbean is predicated upon a particular, and vastly unequal, world political and economic order. Even the working class, budget tourist from Europe, Canada or the USA is in a position to spend about as much on a package holiday in the Caribbean as many locals will earn in a year.

Exploitation and inequity are part and parcel of capitalism (and communism for that matter). Jamaica remains deeply embedded in HM’s neo-colonial designs. We were stopped by a genuine British police officer in Hope Bay, A very professional “whitey” inquiring about what we were doing. I don’t think Portia had any say about British cops roaming around the Jamaican country side.

About the author

Xavier Murphy