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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era