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 amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain