Roughing it, with laughs and learning

In 'The Reluctant Traveler' - one of 100 films playing the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival - a man is yanked from his comfort zone to journey across Ethiopia


AMERICAN-STATESMAN FILM WRITER
Friday, September 04, 2009

At least he brought his facial creams.

Marco Orsini is not a happy camper. In fact, "I am NOT a camper," he says stridently to the camera in the documentary in which he directed and stars, "The Reluctant Traveler."

But here he is camping in the cracked, crusty, unforgiving desert of Ethiopia's Danakil Depression. It is not going well, but he's trying.

This despite the rashes, the diarrhea, the dodgy menu, lack of water and getting lost, alone, on foot.

Orsini's journey across Ethiopia is "one of the most challenging, excruciating things I have ever done," he tells the audience in his first-person travelogue, which begins as an aria of culture-shocked complaints and concludes as a mindful paean to understanding and enlightenment.

"The Reluctant Traveler" screens at 9 p.m. Thursday at the Alamo South as part of the 22nd annual Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which runs Tuesday through Sept. 13.

The film was not his idea. Orsini, a filmmaker and television producer, and his wealthy, off-screen boyfriend were set to join a BBC crew to make a documentary about crossing Ethiopia's diverse landscapes, from deserts and plateaus, to villages and volcanoes. But the boyfriend got sick and bailed on the trip and the film's narrator fell down some stairs. Suddenly, Orsini was the face of the documentary.

After his initial attempts at making a serious travel movie failed, Orsini was encouraged to use the footage of him being yanked out of his typical luxurious comfort zone and behaving a little brattishly to humorous effect. (Though he runs out of toilet paper, he does have his fancy face ointment.)

"I call it a 'docu-comedy,' because this is my first documentary and I had no idea what I was doing," Orsini says by phone from Mykonos, Greece, where he lives with his partner for part of the year. (He spends the rest of the time in Monte Carlo and traveling in high style about Europe.)

"I'm a Westerner who is naive to the cultures but somehow making it funny by poking fun of myself," he says. "It's kind of a cross between 'Borat' and 'Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.' "

Orsini will be at AGLIFF next week to show "The Reluctant Traveler," then will fly to Los Angeles for production meetings about possibly turning the movie into a television series.

"This is the first gay and lesbian film festival my film has been accepted to," Orsini says. "Other festivals would tell me, 'We love your film, but we don't think it's gay enough.' "

Austin American-Statesman: That said, how does your film fit into the program of a gay-lesbian film festival?

Marco Orsini:I feel like Austin is very progressive. My film might not be a gay movie of trannies running around the desert, but I'm a gay person who made a film, and right off the bat in the movie I say that I'm gay and married to my partner, and then, boom, I jump into the story. It reflects how 21st-century gays live, and I think there needs to be some room for that. This is a gay-audience film. The gays I've played it for have loved it. I guess gays laugh louder, I don't know. Straight audiences have absolutely loved it as well. Straight and gay people can relate to it, but a gay man can definitely relate to my experience in Ethiopia.

Though you call your film a docu-comedy, you spend the first part of the documentary complaining about the privations and having to rough it, and it looks genuine, not like you're playing it up for laughs.

I tell you, it was awful. I was actually sick for five or six days and everything was held up. The heat was so unbearable during the day in the Danakil Depression that some days we couldn't even leave our tents. It was so suffocating that you just had no energy and couldn't move. We ran out of water, we lost a truck. Near the end we were having couscous for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I just couldn't do it anymore, so I turned to Johnnie Walker Black Label, which, by the way, there is a lot of in Ethiopia.

Part of doing comedy is putting yourself out there and not worrying how you look, so I wonder if you were concerned about looking like a privileged, spoiled brat at the start of the film, when you're griping about the outdoor toilets and overall conditions.

I was afraid I would come across that way, though I'm really not that way at all. But the person I was working with said I had to show my lifestyle or people won't care. You have to start them somewhere. Whether they like you or not doesn't matter at the beginning, it's what they think at the end. And if you are just a flat plateau throughout it then you're not telling the truth of what happened. That was hard for me to do. At one of the premieres, I sat by the door because I was nervous people were not going to like me in the film. I was afraid people would think I was just an arrogant, spoiled boy who had a little trip.

That is how you come across in the first 10 minutes or so of the movie. But it works, because without that set-up you don't really have a journey, you don't change and give the film dramatic shape.

I interviewed with a journalist in Florida, who was very nice and with a smile said, "In the first 10 minutes I couldn't stand you and I sure as hell didn't want to interview you. But now I'm very glad to meet you and I thought the film was great." Viewers who don't know me feel this way right off the bat.

That's how I felt. I was thinking, 'Oh, poor baby.'

(Laughing) Well, I hope you've changed your mind a little bit!

I have. That's why the film works. It becomes your journey and how it informs and transforms you. What did you learn during the odyssey? You ask at the end of the movie, 'What do I take back?' So I ask: What did you take back?

There are two sides to that question. The first side is that I've always had a very staunch opinion about religion and its purpose, until I went and saw how important spirituality is. I was able to separate religion and spirituality. One becomes beaten down by the continual idea of religion and what it represents. And then you go there and realize, "Wow, this is all they have." The local church really does support the local people there. The spirituality is so strong that it is healing.

The other thing I took away is if you ever go to a Third World country, bring Wet Ones.

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649