Israeli-born music video director Alma Har’el’s work with the band Beirut won her a VMA nomination, but it’s a long way from a four-and-a-half minute indie cult short to an award-winning 80 minutes of undoing – and rebuilding – the American dream.
Bombay Beach is a community situated in southern California’s Colorado Desert. Founded in 1929, it sits on the east coast of Salton Sea, an inland saline lake formed by the floodwaters of the Colorado River. The community once catered to water sports enthusiasts and profited from visits by Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. Fluctuations in water level and an increase in saline content brought on decline and today, there are less than 300 inhabitants left.
Har’el follows three of these through the vagaries of life on the outer reaches. Benny Parrish, a kid with symptoms of manic depression on medication that would take down Schwarzenegger; CeeJay Thompson, a black American in search of a future in professional football; and Red, an ageing, originally midwestern drifter who lives on alcohol and cigarettes. By setting their stories to a soundtrack of Bob Dylan and Beirut’s Zach Condon, Har’el posits music as an antidote to despair. Each protagonist is given the chance to escape and the right to hope, in carefully mimed and delicately filmed musical sequences that rise above the everyday without ever tearing the fabric of reality.
The result is a documentary whose images and soundtrack combine to paint a new American dream. Recommended viewing for presidential candidates – and anyone with a smidgeon of humanity.
Bombay Beach | Directed by Alma Har’el (USA 2011), documentary. Starts September 27