Bombay Beach (2011)

2 Feb

The tiny settlement of Bombay Beach nestles on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea in South Eastern California.  It’s a fractured piece of Americana, a relic of an abortive 1950’s tourism development that now lies neglected, forgotten and rapidly decaying.  It’s also home to a small but eclectic posse of folk who exist very literally on the fringes of society.   Confronted by death and decay at every turn, one could be forgiven for thinking this was a place shorn of hope, a haven for those who had given up on ‘normal’ life. However, Alma Ha’rel’s stunning documentary paints a very different and utterly beautiful picture of life lived on the edge.

Ha’rel’s picture opens with a prologue of a ‘50’s advert selling the Salton Sea as a booming region of prosperity and growth, the very definition of the American Dream.  Fast forward to the present day and the reality couldn’t be more markedly different.  Bombay Beach lies rusting and almost deserted, a derelict and unforgiving place.

Yet Bombay Beach is home to a few hundred outsiders and Ha’rel interweaves the stories of three of its capricious residents.  Benny Parrish is a hyper young boy, heavily medicated to manage his behavioural difficulties.  Given his familial background (during the paranoid post 9/11 era his parents were jailed for more than two years on explosives and ammunition charges), it’s hardly surprising.

Red, an octogenarian drifter lives on the bread line, supporting himself by bootlegging cigarettes, whilst Ceejay an exile of LA and a NFL hopeful luxuriates in the sanctity and serenity that only a place as remote as Bombay Beach could afford.  Whilst for some, Bombay Beach is a dead end, for Ceejay it represents a second chance and above all else hope.

Ha’rel adopts an inherently observational, unobtrusive and naturalistic approach, letting the action play out, but there are fantastical, almost ethereal moments when Ceejay, Benny et al break into what seems like spontaneous dance, conveying a deeply personal, very humanistic and perhaps truest public expression of their selves.  Tinged in an almost perpetual sunset and accompanied by the haunting tones of Beirut and the very American twang of Bob Dylan, these dances provide a glimpse of Bombay Beach that is intrinsically pure and above all beautiful.

Ceejay lost in the moment.

All this is in marked contrast to the persistent shots of dead fish and animals, evidently hugely symbolic of this fragmenting and isolated sub sector of society.  And for some, therein lies the appeal of Bombay Beach, it’s a tightknit, intertwined community that harbours societies ‘misfits and that allows those directionless souls to self-destruct amidst a sea of boredom and booze.  In a sense, Bombay Beach represents the very literal death of the American Dream.

Yet even Bombay Beach, such an insular society, adheres to normal constructs.  Benny is picked on and excluded for being ‘different’ and Ceejay feels like an outsider as one of Bombay Beaches only black residents.  It’s an effective microcosm of society at large; there are always outsiders, even amongst a society full of them.  Ha’rel also chooses to continually emphasise the physical isolation of Bombay Beach by highlighting the distances of such familiar locales such as the nearest school or hospital.  With most of these lying more than 25 miles away, it’s as secluded as can be.

Yet there remains a glimmer of hope and there are fleeting hints of a Blitz spirit amongst the outliers of Bombay Beach.  For the most part its residents try and make the best of their situation and Ha’rel’s understated, vivid and aesthetically sublime portrayal of a life lived on the margins emphasises the importance of retaining at least a sliver of hope and an idea of a dream, whatever the likelihood of achieving either.

This is Americana, it’s unique and undeniably fragile, but there’s life in it yet.


*** For screening details see:

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