During the past year I have seen an incredible amount of documentaries, some good, some bad. There appears to be a drive for finding new documentary forms. We’ve seen the interactive doc, more social action docs and new forms of the dramatized sort. But not once have I seen a documentary like Bombay Beach, a film like a dream which leaves you floating long after it has finished.
Director Alma Har’el managed what many filmmakers dream of; to make a success of her first feature documentary. Her background of making music videos is clearly visible in the film. It is a work of perfection, yet it has enough personality and orginal storyline to be rightly called a documentary.
Against the backdrop of the man made Salton Sea, once hailed as the perfect place to celebrate the long Californian summers, we get to see an extreme wealth of characters who each in their own way show us what life is like for them. The Parrish family, who’s son Benny is bipolar, share their struggles and their fun with us; Red, a rootless vagabond who enjoys his life and the people he gets to share it with shares his wisdoms; and CeeJay, a kid raised on the streets of downtown LA tells us how he uses living in the middle of nowhere as a way to reach his goals and avoid a further life in poverty.
Har’el got the idea for the documentary while filming a music video for Beirut in that very same ghost town, and the traces of how the idea of a film first collided with what she was doing is recognisable throughout the film. Dance is interwoven in the story in the most natural way, the music (by Beirut and Bob Dylan) is in perfect harmony, and she ensures every shot includes only what she intended to include. Poetic would be a word to describe it had it not taken away from the sometimes aweful reality the characters’ stories draw us back into.