Winner of the best documentary at Tribeca Film Festival, Alma Har’el’s debut film revisits the largely deserted Salton Sea, California, a failure of 1950’s development expansion, for an intimate portrayal of its current offbeat occupants.
In your face newsreel footage, complete with rapid-fire editing and a booming voice-over, takes us back 50 years to the development’s heyday. This was a resort community with luxury apartments fronting the perfect beaches of a salt-water lake, a symbol of US post war wealth, the playground of the rich. Har’el switches to its contemporary setting, now a sand coated townscape consisting of little more than toxic water, dead fish and dilapidated buildings. In between, high sea levels & resort flooding had forced occupiers to flee, a total lack of prudent planning neatly exposed.
A wreckage in the desert, nearly a ghost town, it now serves as a final outpost of civilisation, an overflow for unorthodox, fringe and eccentric inhabitants; some are here by choice, others are victims of a mainstream society excluding those falling outside the norm. Har’el first stumbled across the settlement when filming a music video in the area and returned for a documentary with a difference.
This is an impoverished society, part of the Californian underclasses, where the nearest medical supplies are 50 miles away. Har’el drifts around the community, at times providing an overview, but more often following three of its settlers.
There is CeeJay, an African-American who took flight from Los Angles having witnessed his cousin’s brutal murder during gang warfare. He is a promising running back struggling to achieve the grades necessary for a college scholarship.
Red proves that the old timer character-types of American movies really do exist. A cigarette bootlegger with an eye for the ladies, a harmless rogue in his old age but with a backstory that may reveal a different history.
And there is the Parish family who defy expectations. The parents have fallen foul of the law for setting off explosives in the desert; identified as possible terrorists by the security forces, and yet, Har’el’s filming over a sustained period reveals a responsible couple overcoming adversity with meagre means. Most interesting of all is their engaging 7 year old son, psychiatrically diagnosed with bipolar, who offers an intriguing view of the world.
But the distinguishing factor, which sets it apart from other fly-on-the-wall docs, is Har’el’s extraordinary use of dance. Partly choreographed but always with space for interpretation, the residents use the movements as another form of expression, a unique alternative to talking heads. Particularly effective is Ceejay and his girlfriend’s routine of anxiety surrounded by white masks, the demonic symbols of the blank faces of contempt and intimidation that they have presumably experienced at the hands of the white community.
The cinematography is breathtaking. Har’el revels in the natural beauty of decay with an artists eye that seduces us at every step of the way. We marvel at the multitude of ‘ready mades’ that have seemingly established their own space in the terrain; a testament to time as a great sculptor.
This is a film capturing something of our age for the future; an important contribution towards the global movement of synthesised filmmaking operating at the boundaries of documentary and fiction but always feeling absolutely real.
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