Israeli director Alma Har’el has used her background in music video production (she directed videos for Beirut’s Elephant Gun and Postcards from Italy) to add a surrealist edge to her documentary Bombay Beach (2011), a dreamlike portrait of human endurance in all its varying guises.
Bombay Beach focuses on a small American community inhabiting the remains of a once prosperous holiday town, which is now nothing more than a trace memory of better times. This thoughtful voyage into the core of human behaviour allows each of Bombay Beach’s townsfolk the opportunity to share their entrancing back-stories and unique ability to survive amidst what is little more that an isolated dust bowl.
Located in California, Bombay Beach lacks any of the glitz and glamour of neighbouring Los Angeles or San Francisco. The area was transformed into a holiday destination when the bursting Colorado River banks lead to the creation of a man-made lake, ideal for long weekends away from the big city. However, as the vacation industry began to crumble, so did the infrastructure of the surrounding population – leaving behind a ghost town full of hopeless dreamers.
The most striking elements of Bombay Beach are its visceral, cinematic beauty and the hypnotic score which accompanies it (comprised of tracks by Beirut’s Zach Condon inter-spliced with a few Bob Dylan classics here and there). Yet, despite its aesthetic accomplishments, Har’el’s documentary lacks any real depth, feeling very much like an arthouse reality TV show, extended far beyond the point where your interest begins to wane.
The film’s exploration of how poverty can bring out our innate natural skill for survival has been done before, and the wealth-divide across the United States has also been well-documented. Whilst each character has their fifteen minutes of fame, as a viewer it’s difficult to truly connect with them on any level other than sympathetic pity. It all results in a somewhat voyeuristic experience which borders on exploitation.
No truer is this than in the choreographed dance sequences, perhaps interjected to represent how life – when broken down past the superficial facades we masks ourselves with – is little more than an act we must perform to survive. However, that shouldn’t mean we should have to witness it literally for the message to come across. For all the visual titillation they may achieve, these scenes are very much a case of ‘smoke and mirrors’, and as the shiny gloss recedes and you re-enter the harsh, telling natural light outside the cinema, you realise you’ve learnt almost nothing about these people.
Bombay Beach unfortunately culminates into a film which – despite its sensual elegance – is nothing more than an overblown ballet of personal misery. However, whilst it may lack a clear objective, Har’el’s film is certainly a skilfully-made effort, presenting the American West Coast through a uniquely glorious palette of warm, inviting shades – a wonderful piece of art with little lurking behind its aesthetic allure.