In the Californian desert, thousands of miles from the built up cities that spat them out, is Slab City, a community of homeless people living out of their vans and cars, attempting to blot themselves out on the surreal desert landscape. Below Sea Level documents their lives and how, despite their best efforts, it becomes impossible to completely submit to the loneliness so many people think they desire.
Filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi follows seven members of Slab City over a period of five years, each living with their trucks, vans, tents and, most importantly, their dogs. Each has experienced a rupture that has brought them to this place, to their day to day existence that is punctuated by the tentative gestures of their fellow inhabitants.
Rosi’s style falls into an increasingly prevalent school of documentary filmmaking, emphasising unobtrusive observation. You never see the film crew, or hear their voices. There is no narration, no commentary, no summation of the disparate reasons these people have arrived at such a place. It is an exercise in patience and reflection – no questions from the filmmaker-as-protagonist, no purposeful teasing out of stories that have brought the subjects’ lives to this point, and by denying that sort of narrative, the piece has a certain sense of calm to it.
Not that this film is easy to watch. The lives that are followed have a certain ritualised, and ultimately positive, behaviour to them. Kenneth, or ‘Bus Kenny’ as he is known, is in an ongoing renovation battle with his old school bus, trying to connect with ‘the Doctor’, a recently divorced woman who is struggling with her new homeless identity. David, the ‘water guy’ drives his truck full of water around to the inhabitants, selling it to those who need it. ‘Bulletproof’ and ‘Insane Wayne’ form a booze addled relationship that swings between tender and unstable in seconds. Cindy, an ex-Navy transwoman, shakily starts a salon out of the back of her RV, her fragility essentialising the existence of the desert dwellers, all functioning in their own way, defying a final judgment on their lives. And all through Mike Bright, spending his nights alone in his caravan, writes a ballad of the citizens of Slab City.
The dogs in this film deserve a mention in themselves. They are essential companions to most of the desert inhabitants; where people have failed them, their pets have not. The Pet Cemetery is a landmark in an otherwise arid landscape, people gather to scatter the ashes of their old dogs, and otherwise spiky characters are seen to coo and cuddle over new litters.
The slow pace of this film may put some people off, but I found that the expansive and gentle approach laid out the documentary subjects in whatever way they wanted. There was no pounding political commentary to their stories – unless they themselves wanted to provide it. This lack of commentary by Rosi meant that their stories weren’t turned into causes, highlighting their pain for the ‘greater good’. The overarching reminder was that, despite allowing these cameras, these strangers, into their lives, they were in the desert for a reason, coping as best they could with either a system that had let them down, or a series of life events from which it is sometimes impossible to rebound.
Part of the HUMAN RIGHTS ARTS AND FILM FESTIVAL
By: Gianfranco Rosi
Runtime: 110 min
Country: USA | Italy
Venice Film Festival 2008 – Winner Best Documentary
Cine du Reel Paris 2008 – Winner Grand Prix
DFA 2009 – Official Selection
One World 2009 – Official Selection
Nododoc Festival 2009 – Official Selection