The film is essentially a tale of struggle and survival with a twist: While the cowboys admit that they benefit from women financially, they refuse to be called gigolos.
Tucked in between personal testimonies are beach scenes showing tanned, muscular young men with Western women engaged in activities like playing cards and volleyball, as well as kissing and cuddling. According to the men, they work on the beach. Most of them are self-taught surfing instructors, while some got their start selling cold drinks on the beach.
But regardless of their story, they certainly know their way around women.
In the film, Bali-based writer Mark Ulyseas says the cowboys are so charming that women, more specifically female tourists, are easily drawn to them. “The women connect to them instantly,” Ulyseas says, while admitting that he himself has not been as lucky in this department.
The film offers men like Ulyseas a tip or two as the cowboys share some of the secrets of their trade. Virmani spells out the essential tips when the cowboys talk about what it is that women want. One tip is: “Shower them with attention.” As one cowboy explains, “Ask them how they’re doing, how their day was, what they did last night.” Most important, he adds, “I make them laugh.”
The film also turns the tables on the stereotype of manipulative women taking advantage of men for money. This time around, the men are the gold diggers.
“The women pay for the food and drinks every day during their vacation,” one cowboy says. “When they leave, they usually give us enough money to pay for a few months’ rent.”
However, he stresses that women give voluntarily. “I never ask for money,” he says, adding that he is not a gigolo.
Virmani says he agrees that the boys are not gigolos, while acknowledging that this is not always clear-cut. “You can find all kinds of articles calling them gigolos,” he says.
“People even make fun of them for saying they are not gigolos. But I’m with the cowboys on this one. I see a distinction and the film does what it can to make the point. Simple reasons. They have primary jobs, usually on the beach or as tour guides or whatever. And they never charge for sex. So they’re not sex workers to me.
“But they are part of the male sex trade in Bali for a host of other reasons. Academics and health officials have started to regard them as such. Not just the cowboys, but beach boys in different countries. They are a high-risk HIV group.
“Also, even though they don’t charge for sex, money does change hands through indirect ways. And plenty of women go in knowing and willing to pay for their companionship, so it amounts to a trade.”
And the cowboys are up front about the fact that money is involved. As they explain throughout the film, parents fall sick, grandparents die and other reasons are invented as an opening for girlfriends to provide financial assistance.
Others use the I-have-nothing card. “When my girlfriend wants to see my place, I move my things, like TV and DVD player, to my friend’s. When she sees that I have nothing, she will give me money for stuff,” he says.
The cowboys’ lifestyle is not a secret to most of their families. One man in the film proudly shows off the houses he built for himself and his father from money provided by his girlfriends. In front of a group of relatives, his father says that he is not ashamed of his son’s “job.”
“I’m not ashamed that my son works on the beach and looks for women. He takes care of his elders. I am proud.”
The film’s editing is a reflection of the director’s sense of humor. Virmani playfully inserts witty graphics and text between scenes. When one cowboy insists on showing Virmani his “modified penis,” everything goes black for a few seconds before the words “I must be content with I have” repeatedly runs across the screen.
The film is not without serious moments, particularly when it discusses HIV/AIDS. Aside from having multiple sex partners, the cowboys also admit to not always using a condom. “I usually wear a condom, but sometimes when my partner and I are too drunk, we don’t use it,” one beach boy says. “But I’m not worried because Europeans are cleaner than Asians. They are also disciplined about medical checkups.”
“Cowboys in Paradise” premiered at the DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival in South Korea last October. The film has had limited special screenings in Singapore. It is also scheduled to be part of the Melbourne International Film Festival in July. Virmani says that so far, the audience response has been “very gratifying.”
But despite the film’s international success, the 34-year-old director now finds himself at the center of controversy. “Cowboys” has sparked anger on Bali, with the police starting an investigation.
Three men who appeared in the film told police that Virmani said he was just documenting his holiday, not making a movie. After watching the movie in its entirety, however, this claim seems questionable. The people interviewed wear clip-on microphones and the audience can hear the director’s voice asking questions in the background. Virmani also used a Sony EX-1 to shoot the documentary, a pretty conspicuous camera for just taking some holiday snaps.
Some of the beach boys told the police that Virmani paid them for their interviews. On that matter, the director has this to say: “I’ve never denied paying the beach boys for their time. I budgeted for it, I did it and I’m proud that I did it. I’ll say it again, and louder: I’m proud that I did it. Various news channels pay people for their stories. Even leading documentary filmmakers have admitted to paying subjects from time to time. And that’s in the West. I’m supposed to go to a beach boy in Bali and say I can’t compensate him for his time? Why? Because interviewees in the West deserve the money more?
“But doesn’t it make you question what they’re saying now? They thought it was a home video for ‘holiday documentation?’ Who pays people to be in a home video? And why would I interview them if I was making a video of my holiday memories? Did Bali run out of lovely scenery?”
The police said on Friday that the director would likely be named a suspect in the next few days for filming without the proper permits. “We are on that path. Nothing, however, is confirmed as yet,” said Sr. Comr. Gede Sugianyar Dwi Putra, a spokesman for the Bali Police. “In one or two days, we will formally let everyone know. We are not too concerned about extradition matters. What’s important is that we first declare him a suspect.”
Without elaborating, police also suggested that in addition to charges of violating the 1992 Law on Film, Virmani could also be charged with fraud for allegedly tricking the film’s subjects into taking part.
“We have alerted NCB-Interpol to track him down in Singapore,” Gede said. “Every single witness we have questioned said that when Amit shot footage of them, he said it was not for the purpose of making a documentary or film. That’s trickery.”
Virmani declined to comment on the ongoing investigation, but remains fiercely proud of “Cowboys in Paradise.”
Asked if he would have made the movie had he known it would be so controversial, he says, “Yes. The cowboys are a fascinating subject for any filmmaker. Besides, on many levels, the subject chose me.”