One aim of a compelling documentary is the severance between subject matter and filmmaker. But this experimental doc radiates with a director’s craftsmanship, and in doing so shines a vivid light on the America tucked out of sight.
Bombay Beach is Alma Har’el’s first feature film, and as far as debut films go it is one of the most boldly impulsive in years. Har’el investigates the eponymous area, built in the 50s as some kind of paradise where you could go on vacation, stay in a ‘luxury’ chalet and enjoy Southern California’s sunny weather. But now, the tacky trailers made for vacationers are instead inhabited by America’s poorest. Hollywood need look no further – Bombay Beach is the ideal location for a post apocalyptic thriller. Its scorching desert is scattered with abandoned homes, the odd animal carcass, and even ammunition. Har’el follows a small number of equally memorable people who, together, narrate throughout the film as if it were their own biopic. A documentary maker could easily approach Bombay Beach with an army of high definition cameras, capturing every minute detail of the landscape, but some of the film’s most beautiful and honest moments come from Har’el’s out of focus photography. We’re stripped of our temporal bearings – there is no way to tell each day from the next, as if Bombay Beach is in a permanent state of sunset. The audial landscape, too, is dazzling. I can hear the ice cream dripping down the lolly stick as it melts in the Sun, I can hear the tossing of each dirty piece of lettuce in preparation for the local barbeque. Rarely is sound editing so fascinating, and so satisfying, in a film.
The film excels in visual and audial beauty, but Har’el also takes extreme care with the portrayal of her subjects. There is the 7 year old Benny Parrish: his parents were arrested after 9/11 for creating their own firing range out of boredom, and now he is told the only way he can ‘behave appropriately’ around other kids is to be stuffed full of medication, some of which has shocking side effects. There is also CeeJay who perhaps epitomises the idea of the American Dream turned upside down. He moved away from Los Angeles, city of angels, after his cousin was shot to instead live in a ghost town. Now, he’s being offered the chance to play professional American football as long as he gets good grades. He has the kind of innocent optimism that is infectious, even more so as we often see him dumb struck in love. The final main character is Red who looks old enough to remember the first world war. He’s a stubborn fellow – when he has a stroke, he refuses to be picked up insisting ‘I’ll handle it, I’m fine.’ He talks about life, love, guns, smoking, black people – half of it poetic, the other half meaningless. As the film progresses, we learn more and more about them, creating a series of semi-self portraits within the film.
Since their birth in the 1960s, documentaries have always strived to focus on subject matter and not style, to totally isolate the genre from fiction. But Har’el has another trick up her sleeve – she interlaces her film with music videos featuring her subjects expressing things they couldn’t say, in a way they’ve never done before. This way, if only for a short while, Benny can become a firefighter; put on the hat and ride in the fire truck to the bliss tune of Bob Dylan’s forgotten relic ‘Series of Dreams’. This is where Har’el’s film truly innovates; she refuses to let her film be categorised and thereby, just as her subjects transcend verbal language, she transcends the genre and ends up making a deeply poetic documentary about what the ‘United States of America’ is.