Staff Only (2019) REVIEW | Berlinale 2019

"...the result is a fascinating rumination on innocence and the power of white privilege. "

Staff Only movie

Resort holidays are perfect for families as there’s the open bar for the adults, games and activities for the kids. But for young adults and teenagers, they can be frustrating and boring places. There may be a beach and a pool, but they’re stuck in a hotel with no freedom to explore the real country they’ve flown all the way to visit. Staff Only captures this natural desire for exploration perfectly, depicting one Catalan girl’s potentially dangerous desire to discover the real Senegal. Expertly weaving romance with the moral tale, the result is a fascinating rumination on innocence and the power of white privilege.

Marta (Elena Andrada) is at a five-star hotel in Senegal, paid for courtesy of her estranged father (Sergi López). He runs a tourism agency with big investments in the African country, allowing them to stay there over the Christmas period. She quickly grows bored of safari tours and Senegalese drum dancing parties (with the white guests invited to wear traditional dress), wanting to go out and see what it’s like in town. Her father thinks otherwise; when she walks off during a trip with tourist guide Khouma (Diomaye A. Ngom), he quickly warns her that she could be kidnapped or even violently mugged. Naturally Marta ignores him and pursues Khouma aggressively.

Staff Only sets up some fascinating dynamics while throwing us off the scent, starting as a tale of intrigue and danger — suggested by the wild animals seen on safari — before developing into a Rohmer-esque moral tale. At first seeming like a satirical comment on the consumptive nature of tourism and the Disney-ified experience most Europeans have in the African continent, it develops into a classic tale of lost innocence. Filmed with handheld close-ups, many locked on Marta’s face, Staff Only has a claustrophobic vibe, intensifying the moral quandary the headstrong young girl eventually finds herself in. There’s a lot of cringe-worthy moments to be had, but the poor girl always remains sympathetic.

Elena Andrada does a fine job as the young teenager, able to play out many different conflicts through facial expression alone. Not everything needs to be telegraphed so obviously, with Andrada working a little too hard when a subtler performance would’ve sufficed, but it marks an impressive debut from the Catalonian actress.

Her mostly white perspective is interspersed with Khouma’s own amateur videos, which reverse the white gaze and assert him as no victim but a major player in his own right. The standard racial power dynamics in these kind of transient spaces is more complicated here than a simple black/white binary, subtly adding age, class and power into the mix. Director Neus Ballús has a knack for simple set ups with brutal pay-offs, eventually turning our expectations on their head. More work on the screenplay could’ve allowed these themes to play through the action itself: often Marta’s father outright states the themes of the film in lectures to her daughter. Nonetheless, as a study in teenage obliviousness, Staff Only gathers its power from the tiny accretion of moments. The economy of detail is brilliant.

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