Friday, May 24, 2013

Is Alma Har'el's Film Bombay Beach A Case Of Poverty Porn?

By the looks of it, online at least, the majority of folks watching the film Bombay Beach have been thoroughly duped by the emotive conceits of surrealist cinematography. Barely able to contain their excitement, they craft their reviews of the film holding firm to the belief that the director, Alma Har'el, did the long-neglected desert town a favor by filming it.

Never has a quick trip through poverty been quite this beautiful. Critics praise this documentary for "weaving a miraculous poem," calling it a stunning, visually rich, ethereal portrait of the death of the American dream (which is still very much alive for Wall Street bankers, corporate executives and international filmmakers).

But lets get real. All the American Gothic atmospherics in the world can't gild the ugly truth of this film: Bombay Beach is a one way street. Any "favors" are the prerogative of the director who trades in her conscience for a camera (because she can) and shows us that there's no better springboard for raising an artist's profile (and fortunes) than someone else's misery. Consequently, the viewership's only relationship to the individuals in the film is the voyeur's gaze, a crude rubbernecking that fails to sensitize them to the magnitude of what they are seeing.

Unsurprisingly, Har'el states in a Guardian article that she doesn't think her film is about the demise of the American dream because she sees the protagonists' privations as a variation on that dream. From her pretty perch, Har'el empties the word "dream" of any meaning. In her world there's little difference between struggling, living, and dreaming because the systematic pressures of poverty, inadequate healthcare, racism, and rural neglect are inspirational abstractions. But the disturbing degree of socio-economic disintegration we see in the decaying town of Bombay Beach is very real and it's not a dream. It's a nightmare - that ill-informed film directors see fit to sugarcoat with choreographed dance numbers.

Har'el's project embodies a classic exploitative dynamic: well-connected, hip western academic film director enters a land of penury, goes native embedding herself in the community, gains trust, forges bonds, gathers enough raw materiel to sate ego, exits, edits, promotes, and attends film festivals to wild acclaim -- where she makes promises to the cameras interviewing her to send the subjects of the film (her so-called collaborators who had no role in editing the film and never saw a rough cut) some photos of her having a great time clinking glasses. At least that's the way it appears after trawling the Internet. Example: "Bombay Beach -- Interview with Alma Har'el at the Berlinale 2011" 

As the director and producer, Har'el I am sure, doesn't believe she's doing this unpaid cast of characters a disservice. But she pays homage to their destitution without compensating them for their efforts. Instead, she exploits an isolated community for personal gain, profiting off a weaker party. Har'el didn't make a film about mobile, privileged folks after all, like, lets say, a group of dentists (as far as Kramer is concerned that's a touchy subject too). No, she made a movie about people who will never know her jet-setting lifestyle. Har'el has obligations as a filmmaker toward her subjects. Artists are not exempt from ethical responsibility.

The important questions here concern the sort of capital Har'el is exchanging, the value she is imparting to the community of Bombay Beach. Is she proffering anything other than five seconds of fame? Is she promoting anything more than the feel-good bromide that the poor possess a unique dignity, an admirable ability to persevere and "create community" against all odds? Glamorizing poverty whitewashes the crushing reality of what it means to be poor, to lack, to confront inaction in the face of great need.

What's the difference between Bombay Beach as a film and the so-called fine feeling cultivated by the sentimental novel? Both extoll the virtues of "rightly-motivated" empathy, yet generate reductionist responses from the reader/viewer (as James Baldwin argued). One does this via literary realism, the other through whimsical cinematic experimentation. And both are deeply troubling. Even if all parties are consenting, a film like Bombay Beach lends its power to classist structures. When do marginalized classes get to march camera in hand into the Hollywood hills and gawk at the wealth and bounty found there? Such a reversal of roles is unthinkable. Humanist smut like Bombay Beach reinforces the status quo, challenging nothing, expanding zero horizons.

I can't find anywhere on the Internet an explanation of how the actors/subjects were remunerated financially (if I am mistaken please let me know), though it does look like there's been a public campaign to respond to their basic needs. I just hope that the spotlighting of these folks' unfortunate condition as a function of Har'el's fantasies isn't being interpreted as fair enough payment. Five seconds of fame is not legal tender. Har'el didn't passively document human lives, she asked people to don masks and dance. I mean that literally, it's a scene in the film. She put her subjects to work. 

Despite what the critics say, the artistic value of Har'el's film does not provide us with powerful commentary on class relations in America. If this director didn't supply us with an endless supply of insipid garbage, I would expect more than poverty porn from her.

In her interview at the Girls Can Play blog Har'el is oblivious to questions of power and privilege and her implication in them as a filmmaker. The most damming evidence comes from her own mouth. Har'el is clearly not capable of confronting the value of her own creation by forcing it to answer to larger political realities. So instead we end up with a documentary where real content is replaced with highly affected aesthetic pleasures that make the viewer feel good about humanizing the poor as an "object of comfortable concern," as Edward Said put it.

One film critic described Bombay Beach as a "visual feast for the eyes." Indeed it is. But as a big bold slice of poverty porn it is anything but a guilt-free indulgence.

No comments:

Post a Comment