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This Side of Paradise 

Flick Chick

Chris Walsh isn't just the guy who settled in last year as a new co-owner of Nectar's. The 38-year-old Burlington resident also produces independent films. His initial project, Americanos, was directed in a semi-clandestine fashion by New York-based pal Paul Callahan. It concerns a sleazy Yankee lawyer who launches a cigar-smuggling scheme in Cuba with the help of a rootless West Coast slacker. The 2002 mockumentary, which screened at the recent Vermont International Film Festival, was shot four years ago in Havana.

Such an endeavor would be virtually impossible under George W. Bush's anti-Castro crackdown. "[President] Clinton kind of looked the other way," Walsh says, noting the ease with which U.S. citizens once visited the island nation. "And Fidel made it easy. We really preserved a moment of history in Cuba."

Walsh is currently anticipating the January broadcast of a TV reality series, "Caribbean Babylon," that he pitched to and produced for the Travel Channel. The show's six episodes chronicle his own experiences coordinating annual spring-break festivities in Jamaica for Sunsplash Tours from 1997 through 2003.

"We'd get at least 10,000 kids," Walsh explains. "I would oversee feeding, housing, parties and reggae concerts. Here you are in paradise -- naked women, booze, surf, sun -- but you've still got to get up at 7:30 in the morning to do your job."

One of his colleagues in Jamaica was Damon Brink, the Vermont native who is now his Nectar's partner. "We were two American guys with creative chemistry and a flair for being modern P.T. Barnums," Walsh says.

Callahan was their spring-break counterpart, essentially doing the same job for the same company but in Cancun, Mexico. "We'd rendezvous [during the late 1990s] in Cuba," Walsh recalls. "We met all these rogue cigar smugglers, each one more of a character than the other. They weren't selling crack or heroin. It's a romantic rum-runner sort of lifestyle."

With a seasoned cinematographer in tow, the neophytes spent three weeks in April 2000 as guerrilla filmmakers in a tropical land. "It was controlled chaos," Walsh says. "Most of the Cuban stuff was unscripted, improvisational. We kept running out of money and had to edit the footage piecemeal."

Americanos, finished over a period of two years on a $50,000 budget, premiered at a Maryland festival in 2002. "Then the movie went into a weird purgatory," Walsh notes. "One problem is that none of the actors had signed releases, especially the Cubans. We kind of, like, put it on the shelf."

The New York City-born Walsh was a founding member of The Shooting Gallery, an early 1990s Manhattan studio collective behind such indie classics as Slingblade. "I got out after three years," he says. "They later went bankrupt. We had lost our vision. I was burned out on the business."

In the first of several occupational switcheroos, Walsh learned to craft beer at a brewery -- perhaps a logical connection to his next gig: In 1996, Sunsplash Tours hired him as vice-president of promotions and operations in Jamaica. But paradise with inebriated boys and girls gone wild was apparently not enough to feed the soul. "Damon and I sat on a beach in July 2002 and made a pact to do something in Vermont," Walsh says. When Nectar's went on the market three months later, they jumped at the opportunity.

While they reinvent Nectar's as "a platform for the evolution of live music," Walsh keeps his other interests afloat. "Paul is writing our second film," he acknowledges. "It's about the dark side of spring break."

The plight of Iranian women is a prime concern in Under the Skin of the City, co-written by director Rakhshan Bani Etemad. Her daring 2001 film, playing at 7 p.m. Thursday in Dartmouth College's Loew Auditorium, follows the dwindling fortunes of salt-of-the-earth Tuba (Golab Adineh). A Persian-speaking Ma Joad, she, too, has a grown son who must skip town -- call it The Grapes of Wrath, Tehran-style.

Handsome young Abba (Mohammed Reza Foroutan) is less of an idealist than John Steinbeck's Tom Joad. Instead, he's an upwardly mobile delivery boy who wants to help his impoverished parents by finding lucrative work in Japan. But he makes a miscalculation that endangers the entire family.

Etemad's engrossing story, which takes place as parliamentary elections approach, might resonate for vote-weary Americans. Citizens hope for change, but religious fundamentalism threatens individuality and freedom of expression.

Meanwhile, Abba's teenage sister (Baran Kosari) worries about her best friend being on the run after violating a gender-specific tenet of Islamic law. Tuba, who works at a mind-numbing factory job, endures. It's easy to imagine her saying: "We'll go on forever, Pa, because we're the people."

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Susan Green

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