by Kerry McLeod
Ever since it became one of the most talked about films at last year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, I’ve been itching to see Bombay Beach. It’s split opinion in the circle of doc-types I inhabit, with some questioning director Alma Har’el’s authorial voice and her treatment of her contributors, but this viewer found herself firmly in the camp that finds it one of the most stylistically exciting documentaries of recent years.
Bombay Beach is the living embodiment of the failed American dream, although the use of the word ‘living’ could be questionable. Once a Californian development scheme, it is now a bleak and desolate place, inhabited by outsiders – the old, the poor, the uneducated. Har’el picks out three main storytellers: Red, the aged adventurer, whose poetic musings provide a narration of sorts throughout the film; CeeJay, a promising young athlete who has come to escape the violence of his life in LA and improve his grades enough to get to college; and the most poignant storyteller of all, Benny, a seven-year old taking a cocktail of drugs for a bipolar condition, who seems locked in his own world for much of his day.
Blending observational filmmaking with dance sequences and music by frequent collaborator Beirut, the film evokes a sense of life lived on the edge, of people forgotten and misunderstood. One striking moment in the film comes when we learn that Bobby’s family has a complicated history: the mother we have seen patiently explaining to her son why he should never think of himself as crazy as she counts out his medication has in fact been in prison, along with her husband, after being found with their home in a state of neglect, and with stashes of arms and explosives used to act out army fantasies. They have twice lost custody of their children and they struggle to keep their home in a state of which the authorities will approve, yet never appear anything less than loving.
Har’el captures a truly filmic – almost post-apocalyptic – landscape and successfully creates the feeling that we are really on the edge of the world. No-one passes through, no-one visits; the nearest hospital is an hour’s drive away and Red must be airlifted to hospital when he suffers a stroke. Dead animals and fish are a recurring motif, emphasising the terminal decline of this place and contrasting it with the very much alive inner worlds of its inhabitants.
Thanks to such stylised storytelling, the question of how much of what we see is Har’el’s subjective interpretation versus the views and experience of the area’s inhabitants becomes slightly redundant and in the end feels less manipulative than many ‘straight’ observational documentaries. And the film succeeds in asking difficult questions, and confronting the bleakest aspects of modern society, without ever becoming bleak itself: a haunting but ultimately joyous celebration of life lived on the outside.
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