Gilbey on Film: Truth and lies

Alma Har'el has made the most successful "engineered" documentary yet.

To call Bombay Beach a documentary is only half the story; it's what adorns and nourishes that framework that makes it so beautiful and distinctive. The Israeli filmmaker Alma Har'el spent a year living among the residents of Bombay Beach, a failed and forgotten development (now a "census designated place") on the Salton Sea in Southern California. What began as a "miracle in the desert" heralded in the 1950s as the holiday destination of the future has become a desiccated scrap of land that the term "Nowhereville" comes nowhere close to describing. But just as many of the people who live there have refused to be cowed by their surroundings, so Har'el has conjured from this apparently bleak terrain a film of warmth, lyricism and vitality.

The film's focus falls initially on the Parrish family. Mum and Dad served two years in prison after the authorities discovered guns and explosives in their home. (The family's enthusiasm for blowing things up knew no bounds; if you were to say that their land looked like a bomb site, you would have hit the UXB on the head.) Their children were put into care, and upon their return it was noted that the youngest son, Benny, was "a little different". When we first meet him, he is rehearsing, heartbreakingly, what he would say if someone ever tried to take him into care again. Although he is aggressively medicated (a visit to the doctor, whose expression embodies the phrase "clutching at straws", ends in the suggestion that the boy's Ritalin dosage should be increased), his humour and energy burst off the screen. He sashays along the desolate street in a gaudy pink wig, and announces via a hand-puppet at the Behavioural Health Clinic that he wants to be a weirdo when he grows up. He is an original, and the film's urchin star.

The Parrish family's neighbours include Red, a leather-faced, self-described "bum" who makes Harry Dean Stanton look like Justin Bieber. Red just about scrapes by selling cigarettes for a quarter a pop; he recollects a life scratched out in the shadow of a failed marriage and a 50-year estrangement from his two children. For him, Bombay Beach is both sanctuary and final resting place, whereas for Ceejay, a teenager who fled South Central LA after his cousin was gunned down, it represents hope. If he can hoist his grades, Ceejay has a shot at a football scholarship. He's also in love with a pal's sister, who might be his if he can only extricate her from an obsessive boyfriend.

Bombay Beach features a mix of genuine fly-on-the-wall material and scenes set up by the director, such as the numerous dance sequences and a delicately revealing episode in which Ceejay and his friends address chat-up lines to one of the blank-faced white masks from his frantic hip-hop routines. Not so long ago there seemed to be a purge on any element of fabrication in documentary; this coincided with the revelation in popular culture at large that Bear Grylls was actually being transported between woodland hide-outs in a sedan chair. The director Dominic Savage (whose films include the banking-crisis drama Freefall) was on the sharp end of this rebellion against the inauthentic when he made Rogue Males, a 1998 Channel 4 film about Salford scallywags. An incident in which his subjects had posed as cowboy builders was restaged using actors, but without the distinction being made for viewers between documentary and reconstruction.

"I wasn't cynically restaging stuff," he told me in 2009. "What you could accuse me of was naivety. And that was the point where it became so important for me to create drama, because I didn't want to be restricted by that sort of thing." He expressed also an ambivalence to the documentary form in general: "I found the exposure of real people very hard to bear. Even if you make a documentary with the greatest love and care, there's always going to be some betrayal. However much you are trusted by the person whom you're filming, you are using them. You aren't really their friend. How can you be?"

I don't know. But Alma Har'el must come close. You can listen to her talking about the filmmaking process, and her relationship with her subjects, in this interview on Radio 3's Night Waves. In common with the kind of scripted or conceived work I touched on a few weeks ago when writing here about A Bigger Splash, there is now a new tolerance of supposed documentaries which are in fact partially engineered (there's a whole emerging wave of them in British cinema alone: The Arbor, Dreams of a Life , Lawrence of Belgravia).

Bombay Beach falls into this category, and is the most aesthetically (not to mention musically, with songs by Beirut and Bob Dylan) sophisticated example of the form; its scenes of corroded beauty make it something like a real-life Gummo. It doesn't disguise its layer of artifice, but nor is there any doubt that the people in front of the camera are authentically themselves. Har'el also takes special care to frame and photograph them within the landscape. A particular compositional tendency of hers is to silhouette her subjects individually in front of a burnished sunset. They seem to be not merely living on the land, but growing out of it like exotic cacti.

"Bombay Beach" is released on Friday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear