Thursday, April 21, 2011

Talking Tribeca: Bombay Beach

I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from the Tribeca Film Festival. In no particular order, I present a look at one film per day. The Tribeca Film Festival takes place April 20th through May 1st.

Bombay Beach
Directed by Alma Har’el
Festival Screenings

It can be tough to pinpoint exactly what a documentary should do. Some might say that all it needs to do is document. Often, documentary filmmakers set out to discover something about a subject, and the resulting film includes their findings. In other cases, there’s something to discover, but not much in the way of conclusions to report. “Bombay Beach,” a Tribeca entry in the World Documentary Competition, spotlights several families in a poor area by the Salton Sea in California. There are images of disturbingly thin bodies gathering for neighborhood barbecues and stories of children hopped up on so much medication that they couldn’t possibly hope to escape the trajectory of their lives. One or two individuals actually possess a motivation to leave the area, but there are plenty of obstacles in the way. This setup is intriguing, yet there’s no argument, no thesis, and no real point other than to note that this is a worthwhile subject that can be mined for some moral statement. There are two moments in particular where characters almost start performing for the camera, in the kind of scene that should happen organically and subtly in a nonfiction film and instead seems hopelessly staged. The level of access given to the camera here indicates that these are people who want their story to be told, and as a result, they’re partially living their lives for the camera. It’s as if there’s a story waiting to be told, yet the filmmakers got too close to really see anything worthwhile.

See it or skip it? Skip it, definitely.

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