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2 “Documentaries” on Survival at the edge: Wang Bing’s Alone (China) and Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach (USA)


In the past two viewings at the FimK-lib at the Mother Earth Hall at Grand River North West, members watched and, during discussion, compared two incredible films, Wang Bing’s Alone (China) and Alma Ha’rel’s Bombay Beach (USA).

 Both are about survival, with emphasis on children surviving, and doing so under the most dire of circumstances. Both are documentaries – of an unusual nature, thus the quotation marks in the title of this article – art documentaries, creative documentaries, documentaries that extend the boudaries of cinema, enrich the medium of film.

 “Alone” by Wang Bing

One film, “Alone” (in French Les Trois Soeurs de Yunnan), is about three very young sisters surviving on a farm in a cold, mountainous rural area of Yunnan in China, after their mother has gone off to the City and never come back, and when their father has had to go and work in the city for months on end. They are left to themselves. Quite literally. And they take care of themselves remarkably well, living as they do in the same clothes night and day, helping out with farm animals and in the fields, mending their leaking shoes, fending off lice and rats. But there are glimpses of “progress”: Cold water dribbles out of one shared tap. One family has an old TV. The children’s clothes have logos on them.

 The old peasant life is shown as dying out. And yet it is still remarkably robust, just as the three sisters are. The potato crops are healthy, the farm animals in the pink of condition, even the dogs and the odd cat look well nourished. All creatures eat potatoes. Fine collective festivals take place from time to time, with complicated and varied dishes prepared around the slaughter of an animal. The little school thrives in the old method of rote-learning. While people on the farms are gradually being drawn into the capitalist economy. The three little girls are only 10, 6 and 4 years old, respectively, and the entire film – a long film – is on them. The film has a strange, slow texture – one that gradually draws you in, until you are riveted. What seemed a bleak, desolate life at the outset, seems rich by the end of the film.

 The filming method is that Wang Bing, now a famous director, spent so much time with the children, filming them and filming them, that they got used to the presence of the camera. There were over 200 hours of film, cut down to 2 and a half hours. So, for this chef d’oeuvre all is in the editing. The film was launched in 2012.

 “Alone” makes it clear that most of what the peasant, farming families need, they still produce themselves. But, they also need clothes. They need implements. For which they need money. So, the city beckons. The children buy sweets and little knick-knacks at school – things that come from the city. Again, the city beckons.

 But the father, when he comes back from the city, with a new wife, has found life so difficult there in the city, that he and his new partner are going to try and make a go of peasant life again – so there is a va-et-vient, to complicate the movement of history.

 Bombay Beach

The other film, “Bombay Beach”, is about poor American families that have moved into the deserted, silted up, “Integrated Resort Scheme” long since fallen into disuse, abandon and ruin in what is left of the area called Bombay Beach in the south California desert on the edge of the so-called “Salton Sea”, where some of the original inhabitants are still sticking it out until 2011 when the filming was done. The place, a ghost town, full of rusty industrial-looking relics, fish skeletons and the stink of dead fish – is what is leeft after a double ecological disaster. And everyone in the film shoos away flies, as they speak. The background is that in 1905, a big man-made canal taking water from the Colorado River burst its banks and millions of gallons of water ended up in a valley making a lake about half the size of Mauritius main island, that got called “The Salton Sea”. In the 1950’s and 1960’s real estate agents parcelled up the land around it, built hotels, resorts, restaurants, night clubs, and sold off villas by the hundred. Celebrities arrived. Others visited. At the resorts like the one called Bombay Beach, there was swimming, boating, water-skiing by day with the finest musicians in the world playing at the hotels by night. Just like Mauritius today, you could say.

 But the lake dried up, and it turned out there had long-ago been a salt lake on that spot, so the Salton Sea leached up the salt. Soon the “sea” turned too salty for fish to survive in. They died, and continue to die until today. The houses lost all value long ago. They were nearly all just deserted. People who could leave, left. Those who could not are still there. And other people with nowhere else to go have joined them. The desert sands blew in. And still blow in. And the film is made there. A kind of post-apocalyptic film, of people surviving in desolation. 300 hardy people lived there at that time, in 2011 and nou doubt many of them still there.

 By contrast with Wang Bing’s film, Bombay Beach is not only “just filmed”, as is, and then edited. It is partly “just filmed” and edited, but it is also partly staged, the real people living there acting out their roles, and it is partly the dreams people have, with symbolic images. Music, some beautiful original music (by Beirut and Bob Dylan), plus old Bob Dylan songs, gives a haunting background. The film is around three characters: an adorable little boy, Benny, who is diagnosed as bipolar, and whose parents were in jail for supposed “terrorism”. His father is one of those child-like men who loves guns and explosives like a six-year-old loves toys. When the parents get out of jail, they end up in Bombay Beach. The mother is the most fantastic woman, making money by finding empty beer cans, and selling them, and she is a caring mother to Benny, even though the medicines doctors prescribe (Ritalin, Risperdal, Abilify, Lithium) seem only to make him more depressed. She is terrified the authorities will take away her three children, again. Benny dreams of being a fireman. And he believes he is a girl. His mother takes this in her stride.

 Then there is a bigoted old man, there from long ago, called Red, who lives in an abandoned trailer-home. He sells illegal cigarettes in an Indian Reserve nearby to get money.

 And a young teenager, Ceejay, an Afro-American, who left Los Angeles after his cousin was killed in a gang shoot-out. He wants to play football well enough, and get good enough grades, to get into college. For him, Bombay Beach is a refuge. The symbolic bits he acts are with white masks, reminiscent of France Fanon.

 “Bombay Beach” is short (one hour and a quarter hours) and its weakness is that some of the material realities are not en passant made clear – as they are so subtly made clear in “Alone”.  

 “Alone” shows part of the whole pageant of human history, and a sweep of time can be felt over its 2 and a half hours. By contrast, “Bombay Beach” shows a freak society, one left over after the two-phase ecological disaster, leading to a post-apocalypic feeling of the threat of the end of humanity.

 Both films, though each set a different kind of desolation, are up-lifting. Both are gentle films. And when you’ve watched them, and discussed them with people who like movies, and seen them within a month of each other, you feel that you have been led through a rich experience by each of these two very different directors.

 Lindsey Collen