Scooping the award for Best International Documentary at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Bombay Beach (2011) is the kind of refreshing, palate-cleansing experience a film aficionado needs to wash away the taste of greasy blockbusters and unctuous arthouse. Israeli director Alma Har’el’s portrait of an impoverished community residing in a dilapidated settlement on the banks of the Salton Sea is a moving, amusing and often beautiful glimpse at a side of America we rarely get to see.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Salton Sea – a 385-square mile body of water on the edge of the desert – was a popular tourist destination and celebrity hang out. Now the stars and holidaymakers are long gone and all that remains are a few dying towns with waning populations and crumbling buildings. Bombay Beach itself looks post apocalyptic, and Har’el frequently casts her camera towards the shoals of dead fish on the shoreline, starved of oxygen due to the high saline content of the water. Nothing should be living here, let alone thriving, and yet as we are introduced to the resident misfits and dreamers it becomes clear that even in the harshest of environments love, humour and aspiration can bloom.
Har’el spent a year embedded in the community, but rather than attempting to overload Bombay Beach with all manner of misfits, she wisely chose to focus on three stories; the Parrishs are a lower-working class family frequently in trouble with social services due to their domestic hygiene issues and fondness for detonating weapons-grade explosives; wizened ladies man Dorran ‘Red’ Thompson scoots about the desert on his four-wheeler and spouts frontier philosophy and casual racism; finally, there’s local football star Cee-Jay Thompson, who relocated to ‘The Beach’ from LA after his cousin was murdered, yet still dreams of playing in the NFL and hooking up with his best friend’s sister.
Even if Har’el had desired to produce a straight-up documentary it would have been a worthy exercise, but instead of letting nature take its course she chose to choreograph some scenes. This has compelled some critics to question the veracity of her film, but it’s these dance sequences which move to the music of Bob Dylan, Beirut and Zac Condon that lift Bombay Beach up from the average documentary doldrums.
Those who pine for gritty realism in their docs should look elsewhere, but if you’re in the market for some soul-stirring surrealism then grab your bucket and spade – as for Har’el, she’s definitely one to watch.