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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times