There is no place quite like the Salton Sea and it's easy to see why director Alma Har'el was attracted to it for her debut feature Bombay Beach. Once a vibrant tourist destination – sold as "Palm Springs-by-the-Sea" – its lustre faded as the holidaymakers who flocked there in the 1950's began to go elsewhere, and now it just sits there, forgotten and isolated. The crumbling, rusting architecture and desolate vistas recall post-apocalyptic cinema and suggest a place that has been cut off and left behind by an America that has moved on without it. Who could live in such a place? Well, around 300 people do call Bombay Beach home, and Har'el dips into the lives of three particular inhabitants with remarkable imagination and intimacy. This is one of the most extraordinary documentaries I've seen in recent years.
Actually, perhaps documentary isn't the right word; it's far too prosaic a term to accurately describe what Bombay Beach is. On one level, the film does just what you'd expect it to do – it documents the lives of its subjects in a fly-on-the-wall fashion – and Har'el proves herself to be a gifted documentarian in the way she captures people in their unguarded, open moments, but she also utilises her music video background in an ingenious manner to explore their inner lives. Suddenly, the realist style of the film dissolves and the subjects begin to dance in choreographed fantasy sequences that express something of their dreams, thoughts or emotions. A black teenager and his white girlfriend slow-dance behind masks; a child dons a moustache and fireman uniform before playfully clambering onto a fire engine and extinguishing a tiny blaze; an old gentleman, who looks like he may have stepped out of a Western, simply sits down and creates a dance with his cigarettes.
That old man is "Red," one of the three central figures whom Har'el builds Bombay Beach around, and the director must have thanked her lucky stars when she stumbled across him. This octogenarian's no-nonsense manner and homespun wisdom, which he has gleaned over decades of hard living, is put to good use by Har'el who recognises his hardship (he makes a living buying cigarettes on the border and selling them for a quarter each) but also highlights his humour and compassion. The community in Bombay Beach may be small but it is a community, and we see Red at his best when interacting with other residents, who are quick to rally round when the old man is felled by a stroke later in the movie. Even after this setback, Red remains philosophical and resilient; as he puts it, life is "just a habit" and he'll keep on going until his time is up.
Bombay Beach's other two characters still have their whole lives ahead of them. Benny Parrish is a hyperactive child from a troubled family whose behavioural issues are dealt with by an unsettling amount of prescribed medication. The drugs frequently leave this energetic 10 year-old spaced-out and drooling, but his family adhere to the instructions provided by their doctors, hoping that they're doing what's best for their son. We wonder what effect all of this is having on the boy's mentality and self-esteem; he asks his mother if he has to take pills because he's "crazy" and Har'el dramatises his painful exclusion from a group of schoolchildren. What the future holds for Benny is anyone's guess, but Har'el always encourages us to be optimistic, and her third central character, Ceejay Thompson, shows us how a place like Bombay Beach can have a positive transformative effect on a person's life.
We look at Bombay Beach as a desolate wasteland, but for Ceejay it was his salvation. He moved here after seeing his cousin die in a gang war in LA, and in this quiet town he can focus on his schoolwork, his football game and his future. Ceejay's story reminds us that we must all find our own path in life and Har'el takes that same philosophy with Bombay Beach – these are not regular movie characters and this is not a regular location, so she has created a most irregular movie for them. Bombay Beach looks like nothing else (the captivating cinematography yields achingly gorgeous moments) and sounds like nothing else (thanks to music from Beirut and Bob Dylan), and for 80 minutes – if only it were longer! – the film transfixes us with its boldly unconventional style, using artifice and performance to illuminate truth. Bombay Beach may be labelled as a documentary, but it feels more like a shimmering, surreal dream.
Bombay Beach opens at the ICA in London on February 3rd. A full list of screenings can be found here.