Sugar Mama sex tourism is the subject of Paradise: Love / Paradies: Liebe. Aside from the fact that this is a real thing, which is fascinating, director Ulrich Seidl's remarkable film about the subject is deeply affecting in a number of ways. Paradise: Love is at once sad and ebullient, disturbing and invigorating, beautiful and grotesque. It is a daring investigation on the part of the filmmakers – especially its players, among them several novice Kenyan actors and several veteran Austrian actresses, all of whom, quite literally, bare themselves for all to see, know, and judge. It's brilliantly done.
Sugar Mama sex tourism involves middle-aged European women traveling to Kenya, ostensibly for lovely beach-resort-style vacations in paradise. True, Kenya offers resorts, it looks lovely, and perhaps it's even a paradise of sorts – but the underlying commodity of these retreats are not the trinkets young black men hawk (with alarming persistence) along the beaches to these mature women, with their mature bodies and pent-up frustrations, including those of the sexual variety.
In fact, what these young men are actually selling is affection, attention, intimacy, and hot sex with a young black stud who is perfectly willing to pretend to love those older women – and to pretend that they are young and beautiful – for a price.
"Selling" is strong, but that's what it all adds up to. For the most part, these transactions are couched in the language of love – and reciprocation, by way of gifts and favors.
Paradise: Love: Emotionally vulnerable older women, financially vulnerable younger men
After perfectly ludicrous protestations of deep and undying love from a young Kenyan man, often on first meeting; after being assured of their beauty and desirability, and being ravished physically with yearning and passion, these women, including our heroine, Teresa (veteran German film and television actress Margarete Tiesel), find themselves vulnerable to requests of financial support. Oftentimes, the requests are not for the young men themselves, but for a loved one or a local cause. Or perhaps it's made clear that a much-needed motor-scooter would be deeply appreciated, and that they will show their appreciation with their "big personalities."
At other times, they just ask for cash. The most heard refrains of dialogue from these charming, mercenary boy-toys consist of the local credo, hakuna matata, which translates as "no problem" and "give me money" – which translates as "give me money."
Teresa is not naive, but she is vulnerable. When she and her fellow Sugar Mamas, while lying about the pool, discuss their lives, their fears and frustrations with past relationships, laughing and complaining about their unwieldy, wilting bodies, it isn't a naivety about aging and its ravages that we become privy to; instead it's a longing for all things that drift away with age – particularly for women, truth be told, and particularly in a global society that esteems youth and beauty, in that order, over everything, except money. Still, it takes Teresa a moment to catch on.
On first meeting Munga (Peter Kazungu), a young man who manages to make it all sound true, Teresa's guard comes down. Her defenses weaken. She is left naked both literally and figuratively – for she believes him. When the true nature of their "relationship" sets in, she is devastated; yet, the desire still lingers, and the boys of paradise are plentiful.
Paradise: Love is first installment in Ulrich Seidl's 'Paradise Trilogy'
Paradise: Love is the first movie in a Ulrich Seidl trilogy that includes Paradise: Faith and Paradise: Hope, each of which is a meditation on similar subjects featuring similar characters facing similar issues regarding the human condition – as it were. These themes have been an ongoing preoccupation for Seidl, who has primarily worked as a documentary filmmaker. A previous narrative feature, Dog Days (2000), brought us a documentary-style look at the private lives of ordinary people living in suburban Vienna. Like flies on the wall, we watched as they sorted through their issues, each centered around a desire to find fulfillment, from sexual gratification to a sense of belonging.
With his Paradise Trilogy Ulrich Seidl's cinematic search for love, faith, and hope continues in earnest. If Paradise: Love is any measure, it should be an interesting and fulfilling journey.
Paradise: Love / Paradies Liebe (2012). Director: Ulrich Seidl. Screenplay: Ulrich Seidl and Veronika Franz. Cast: Margarete Tiesel, Peter Kazungu, Inge Maux, Dunja Sowinetz, Helen Brugat, Gabriel Mwarua, Carlos Mkutano.
Margarete Tiesel, Peter Kazungu Paradise: Love photo: Strand Releasing.