Bombay Beach (2011) movie poster

director Alma Har’el
viewed: 02/16/2012

Bombay Beach is a small community on California’s the Salton Sea.   Though I never saw the movie The Salton Sea (2002), a neo-noir set in this milieu, I have been intrigued by it.  Apparently, the current “sea” was formed in the early part of the 20th century when the Colorado River flooded, bursting dams and other man-made attempts to harness it, and water poured into this low-lying area, which had been connecting lakes, rivers, waterways back through the ages.  Apparently, briefly, it became a tourist destination, an inland sea for partying on.

Now for some time, the area around much of this isolated sea has become a home for various people who have removed themselves from society, generally through poverty or intentional isolation.  As for the Val Kilmer film, I think it focused on the methamphetamine communities and other more criminal elements.  Whatever it is or isn’t, I’ve been curious about it.

Bombay Beach is a sort of “artistic” documentary by Israeli-born director Alma Har’el, who focuses on a few key people and families in the Bombay Beach community, following them throughout their lives and travails for a period of time.  I say “artistic” documentary because while it is a documentary, is attempting to capture and document these people, this place, Har’el also takes some liberties with the reality, staging scenes and instances with some poetic license.  While some of these are more clearly fictional or contrived, others are more subtle and confusing.

There is a surreal nature to this.  There is perhaps a surreality to the world itself, untouched by anything other than the camera eye.  It reckons of David Lynch or Diane Arbus, a weirdness of the world that just is.  The landscape, with dead fish on the ground, desolate, decaying structures, damaged, withered people, it speaks a lot.

The core of the story is living with these people, the elderly racist fellow who makes his living selling cigarettes, the young African American boy who relocated from the rough parts of LA after a cousin was killed in gang violence, the young boy on insane medication with behavioral issues.  The ultimate portrait of the people is less exploitative than might seem at first.  Har’el follows them through their aspirations and life changes, and while initially reveling somewhat in their outre-ness, the story is more sympathetic than many.

Still, I feel the “artistic” license employed degrades the possibilities of the documentary.  While documentary is never truly objective and perhaps belies itself in projecting that ideal, Har’el’s surreal moments of dance and dialogue, perhaps meant to suggest the characters’ inner worlds seem contrived and false to me.  It seems like the protagonists participated cheerfully and willingly in these sequences, and while it pushes beyond their natural language and behavior, it grated on me.  Perhaps as more and more documentaries are made as production costs drop, the variety and challenge of the form will come under further and further expansion and testing, such discordances as this will feel more part of the language of these forms.  I don’t know.  I recognize it’s a personal response on my part.