Not wealthy but still rich

Benny Parrish and Alma Har'el

In 2009, filmmaker Alma Har'el was searching for a location for a video clip by Santa Fe band Beirut when she stumbled on to a whole lot more. The Israeli-born director and choreographer was in the south-east corner of California, as Beirut (the brainchild of songwriter Zach Condon) would be coming via the Coachella music festival, when she discovered the Salton Sea, a vast inland lake that had gone from holiday resort to home of last resort in the course of 50 years. In the small town of Bombay Beach, Har'el met three distinct males - a young boy, a teenager, and an elderly man - and her instinctive response to engage and film them has been vindicated by the spread of the resulting documentary, named after the often dilapidated locale. Since its debut to strong praise on the film festival circuit last year, Bombay Beach secured a cinema release in Britain in January and now premiers in Australia at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. ''It has a life of its own now,'' says Har'el, a Los Angeles resident, which is fitting because one of the strengths of the documentary is how it reveals deeply held truths about its three subjects, moving past any cliched or preconceived notions about how people might live in this desolate and beautiful landscape that looks like it could be the setting for a post-apocalyptic film. Advertisement: Story continues below The 35-year-old's subjects are Benny Parrish, a young boy who has been in and out of community care and is struggling with bipolar disorder; African American teenager CeeJay Thompson, who has relocated from Los Angeles after the murder of his cousin; and the fossilised Red, a former oil fields worker who makes his living selling cigarettes to his fellow mobile-home residents. ''I think a lot of people who haven't seen the film might think that I used these people in some way, like props, and it's so patronising, because these people know what they're doing and saying on every level,'' Har'el says. ''I couldn't have done this if they weren't that way.'' The three live in one of the poorest counties in America but their struggles to not so much prosper as survive don't define them. For months on end, working with a hand-held film rig and often without crew, Har'el would spend her weekends in Bombay Beach, staying with the Parrish family or visiting Red, and their lives are richer and more revelatory than grim social realism would allow. Har'el finds a lyrical quality, which is enhanced by snatches of choreography performed by her amateur subjects and scored to songs by Beirut and Bob Dylan. ''It's hard to describe how simple and organic that decision was,'' Har'el explains. ''It was never complicated or thought out. ''I'm fascinated by movement and it helps to explain people so much to see them dance or displaying gestures. I always dance in my dreams, so I assume everybody does.'' Har'el, who is married to the filmmaker Boaz Yakin (Fresh, Remember the Titans), was drawn to Bombay Beach because the landscape reminded her of her homeland, and she brings to the movie a foreigner's view of America. Bombay Beach looks like the America that has had one too many financial crises - with people such as Benny's determined, caring mother, Pamela, or the gracious, ambitious CeeJay - emblematic of the country's vast inclusiveness. ''I have my own impression of the US from growing up in Israel, so I felt that each person in the film was a road map to another kind of American reality,'' Har'el says. ''All of them are full of life but they've been forgotten. I loved their contrasts and how they informed each other.''