Maya Cozier’s first feature film, She Paradise, opening in general release at MovieTowne on April 26, is a dance movie in the way Saturday Night Fever was a dance movie – except that Saturday Night Fever had a budget that could pay for John Travolta and the Bee Gees, and She Paradise had a budget that could pay for popcorn and a mauby.
She Paradise is “guerrilla cinema,” a form which borrows its name from guerrilla warfare: as writer-director/producer/cinematographer/extra/publicist and spokesperson, you make whatever indoor location you can borrow work, somehow. You shoot outdoor scenes fast enough to be gone by the time the owners discover their property has been overrun by scantily clad women dancing lewdly to loud soca music. And you hope your audience will figure out that the leading lady escaped the deadly peril she was facing when they see her wake up apparently unbothered in the next scene.
The limitations of guerrilla cinema, if overcome, offer directors a visceral path to their audiences’ intellects. In hands capable of delivering it, a dance movie set in a Trinidadian ghetto becomes a portrayal of Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Not a bad result, if your audience can be persuaded to forgive you your trespasses, literal and artistic.
And, if She Paradise is guerrilla cinema, guerrilla cinema has a new Che Guevara.
Maya Cozier, her overworked crew and her largely untrained cast – Michael Cherrie is his usual professional, magnificent self as the protagonist’s papa – turn out, in 71 tight minutes, a gru-gru-bef with enough of its sharp needles removed to make it comfortable to turn in one’s hand – and admire.
Yes, flaws might have been better hidden, and lows scrape the bottom – but the highlights are sufficiently high to make the shortcomings fade, if not vanish.
Onessa Nestor shines in the lead role of Sparkle, the 17-year-old who dreams of becoming a dancer girl for a soca star. The support cast is also strong. Chelsey Rampersad is natural as the charismatic and empathetic Mica, Kimberly Crichton is foul-mouthed as the very rough Diamond and Denisia Latchman makes up with attitude whatever lines her character, Shan, might lack. Kern Mollineau gives a solid performance as Skinny, a soca star with no substance beyond self-aggrandisement and an eye for ruthless exploitation of weakness.
She Paradise sneers at escapism: even the sisterhood that the film asserts as the bond between women struggling together is revealed as yet another sham when payday comes and they discover that the only thing they share equally is the hell they’re trapped in. It’s as bleak, in reality, as it aspires to be optimistic in outlook.
Cozier’s film could bookend another Trinidadian film by the last – and also first – director I called the Che of guerrilla cinema. Damian Marcano’s God Loves the Fighter is set in and makes stars of the same communities that Maya Cozier celebrates. These are people the rest of TT regard as dispensable, if not actually throwaway; or, at best, as an unending pool of underpaid workers.
She Paradise is a film that, in a country that loved, or even respected itself, would run for months, to sellout crowds.
Make damn sure you see it this week.