The most original documentary of 2011 comes to DVD replete with a selection of teasingly short but hugely moving extra features that extend the whole experience a few welcome minutes further. Music video director and photographer Alma Ha’rel ensures that Bombay Beach (2011) is almost unclassifiable, melding observational documentation, staged sequences and dance into something completely unique.
The film centres on the small Southern Californian community of Bombay Beach, once an affluent holiday destination, now one of the most poor and dilapidated areas in North America. Though the film has a wide array of endearing characters, Ha’rel locks onto a trio of male protagonists. Benny, a young boy whose bi-polar disorder is treated with crude trail-and-error prescription; Red, a leather-faced old man who readily spouts his lived-in credos and tales throughout the film; and CeeJay, a smart young teenager who has fled the ghettos of LA after his cousin was shot.
That the subjects (stars?) of the film reveal themselves so tenderly is testament to the trust and friendship gained by the filmmaker and is deeply felt in every frame. Even when filming some of the most intimate and potentially difficult scenes, the camera never feels like an intruder or an imposition. That said, we as the audience are always aware of the camera and of the construction of each scene, particularly the instances in which CeeJay and his teenage friends are playing up their sexual expertise to camera.
By choosing to include such manufactured personas, Ha’rel makes an agreement with the audience and a statement on the nature of ‘truth’ in documentary cinema. In acknowledging the inherent artifice of its images, Bombay Beach gets closer to its characters than many documentaries that masquerade as authentic and objective.
Bombay Beach is also a formal triumph, taking so many stylistic tangents that it risks losing the viewer and feeling broken and episodic. However the dreamlike cinematography (Ha’rel self-shooting), associative editing and wonderful Beirut score weave together to form a single overwhelming experience.
As soon as the film has finished, give yourself an hour or so to digest and then watch the “where are they now?” feature on the DVD. Shot by Ha’rel herself, they act as an extension of the experience and confirms the affection felt between filmmaker and subject. Watched together or separately, Bombay Beach remains an overwhelming experience.