Tuesday, October 11, 2011

BOMBAY BEACH, from Alma Har'el, fancily fuses doc, dance, fantasy and more....

Yet another in the ever-expanding realm of hybrid documen-taries, BOMBAY BEACH, the unique new film from Israeli artist/filmmaker Alma Har'el, should prove unlike anything you've yet seen. Because the film won Best Feature Documentary at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, I was prepared to watch a documentary. But as I did, time and again, "What's this?" I would find myself wondering. For clearly, the film is not just about a film-maker pointing a camera at her subjects and recording them. No: She arranges them, even at one point producing a kind of dance. According to the press materials, which I read only after seeing the film, she also used improvisation -- which we generally think of as a narrative technique -- and she ends her movie with a fantasy that, given what we know by then, just might break your heart.

Moving in with her subjects and remaining with them for months, Ms. Har'el (shown at left) has come up with a kind of highly impressionistic canvas on which these people glimmer and glow briefly (the film lasts only 79 minutes), yet make their mark. The filmmaker must have had a lot of footage by the time she finished shooting, but so carefully has she chosen what to show us that, in a surprisingly short time, we feel we understand and even care for her subjects. This is smart, empathetic art.

The characters we meet and grow fond of include the Parrish family, particularly little Benny (above, with his mom, in a pinkl girl's wig, and below, getting a haircut). A problemed child, for a few good reasons, Benny is medicated (maybe over-so) but full of life, intelligence -- and anger.

We learn this family's history, strange but understandable, and also some of the history of the old man "Red," below, who explains why his marriage ended and why he is estranged from his children -- which leads to his philosophizing about why the races must not mix.

Which is exactly what seems to be going on with CeeJay, a young black man from South Central L.A. who is embarking on a relationship, shown below in one of those dance sequences, with a white girl in the local high school.

That CeeJay has come to Bombay Beach to escape the fate of his murdered cousin seems at once intelligent and bizarre. That he feels he can succeed here is surprising but understandable, given who he is and where he comes from.

And this is the beauty and mystery of the film. In the case of all the characters on view, success (or at least the ability to survive) seems both at odds with -- yet an oddly fine example of -- what we generally tend of imagine/believe about America. Is life in Bombay Beach the American Dream turned inside out and then made new and bright again?

That ending -- which imagines a fantasy of one of the characters whom we care so much about -- may strike some as beyond the pale of the documentary process. TrustMovies no longer knows where that pale ends, so quickly and in so many varied ways has documentary changed over these recent few years. But in the case of Bombay Beach and little Benny, who "stars" in the film's finale, I would like the think of this fantasy as a gift of hope from the filmmaker to her subject.

Bombay Beach -- which, whatever else you might call it, is a legitimate work of art -- is presented by Boaz Yakin and self-distributed theatrically, opening this Friday, October 14, in New York City at the IFC Center, and in Los Angeles on October 21 at Laemmle's Sunset 5.

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