Marta (Elena Andrada) is 17, from Barcelona and alternately bored and mortified to be on a Christmas vacation to Senegal with her estranged dad, Manel (Sergi López), and annoying little brother, Bruno (Ian Samsó). For her, the freedoms of imminent adulthood, such as the occasional poolside mojito, are tantalizing close but still technically forbidden, rather like the employees’ section of their resort hotel that is quarantined from the guests’ domain by a doorway marked “Staff Only.”
Catalan director Neus Ballús, in her calm, intelligent second feature after 2013’s docudrama “The Plague,” allows Marta’s coming of age to sensitively parallel, in unexpected ways, a clear-eyed critique of tourism in post-colonial regions. The film is mediated through a white Westerner’s experience rather than that of a local, but it is no white-savior narrative; if anything, it is a gentle dismantling of that myth from the inside, revealing the myopia and self-deluding nature of middle-class white package-tourism in Africa. Unlike her protagonist, Ballús doesn’t mistake good intentions for an intimate understanding of an experience that is not hers to claim.
The form of the movie is generally realist, aided by naturalistic photography from DP Diego Dussuel and impressively unforced performances from the largely first-timer cast. An exception is the shaky-low grade video footage of the family that punctuates the film, shot by local guide and aspiring filmmaker Khouma (Diomaye A. Ngom). Khouma is compiling the footage into a souvenir video that Manel can purchase as a memento of their safaris, bingo nights and trips into the desert to participate in tribal dances — all of which Marta endures only reluctantly, one mutinous eye-roll away from all-out rebellion.
Rebellion does eventually happen. She strikes up a flirtation with Khouma and a friendship with hotel maid Aissatou (Madeleine C. Ndong) in direct opposition to the wishes of her travel-agent father. Ballus’ careful script (co-written with Pau Subirós) cleverly leaves the reasons for those wishes ambiguous. Is the somewhat crass Manel forbidding her to hang out with locals because he’s overprotective and borderline racist? Or is he simply more realistic, aware in a way she is not, of how Marta gets to move through the world differently because of her white skin, an injustice that may not be her fault but can cause understandable, potentially dangerous, resentment? Whatever the case, with the self-centered assurance of a teenager who believes she has it all figured out, Marta is soon sneaking into town behind Manel’s back to go clubbing and hanging out with Aissatou behind the “Staff Only” partition. It’s a barrier breach that comes to stand for a whole variety of social, cultural and moral boundaries that she has the unexamined privilege of being able to test.
Embedded in this understated story, which takes a turn for the predictable only in the slightly underwhelming final act, are acute observations about the paradoxical desire of so many First World visitors to developing nations for luxury, comfort and exclusivity even as they demand bite-sized “authentic” experiences that will sate their cultural curiosity. Marta’s naive interest in the real lives of her newfound Senegalese friends is genuine, yet it’s not without an element of self-satisfaction at being singled out as special, different, better than other tourists. The film makes clear that Marta, however personally innocent she may be of these wider injustices, is part of an exploitative system that is far bigger and more insidious than she has ever considered, cuing a rude awakening that’s handled deftly, without making anyone a villain.
Indeed the film’s defining strength may be Ballús’ rare ability to wield compassion for each one of her imperfect characters without making excuses for any of them. It is this sensitivity and generosity that sets the film apart from Ulrich Seidl’s nominally similar but scathingly misanthropic “Paradise: Love,” which eviscerates the players on all sides of the African sex tourism industry.
In “Staff Only,” the tone is bittersweet rather than excoriating, and while that may make the film a mite too cozy at times, in the main it illuminates the unusual and valuable idea that discovering how to be a good tourist is a lot like working out how to be a good adult. Both journeys are an ongoing series of learning experiences, disillusionments, mistakes and course-corrections, for which one is provided no road map, just an inner sense of morality to use as an imprecise, and occasionally misleading, compass.