Shots From the Canon #3: Gianfranco Rosi’s ‘Below Sea Level’


Every week or so, filmmaker and writer Robert Greene will attempt to push for a new canon of cinematic nonfiction.

Two weeks ago, Gianfranco Rosi won the prestigious Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival with his latest movie Sacro GRA. It was the first nonfiction film to take home the festival’s top prize, and Rosi celebrated the historic occasion by proclaiming, “Finally documentary competes with fiction. Documentary is cinema.” The purpose of writing these Shots From the Canon pieces could not be more succinctly put. So today we nominate Rosi’s earlier masterpiece, Below Sea Level, into our canon.

A crusted slab of a film about the people of Slab City, an abandoned Naval base and “still active” desert bombing range less than 200 miles from Hollywood, Below Sea Level is thrilling, uncomfortable, mischievous and totally alive in every frame. It is a portrait of survival in the face of personal disaster, as these “flies and mosquitoes” who call this outpost their home refuse to be swatted. The residents are defiantly “not-homeless,” living in makeshift buses, old trailers, on piles of rubble. The patient gaze of Rosi’s camera bathes these would-be broken lives with a powerful and affecting sense of dignity.

Humanizing wrecked lives is the stuff of even the most conventional nonfiction, but Rosi isn’t after a simple rehab job. These human creatures are petty, boastful, generous, dirty, beautiful animals that threaten to kill each other, flirt, self-mythologize and run from their problems. In Rosi’s film we see and hear all of it, so we see and hear ourselves in these outcasts. His interview style is not about gathering bullet point sound bites but mimics the languid and thoughtful conversations heard in Slab City. Rosi lived side-by-side with these “Argonauts” (as he calls them), so we’re let into their social order like a trusted neighbor.

Every image has a bracing battered beauty, and these are some of the most compelling characters ever put on screen. Sterling’s generosity, Michael’s soulful growl, Lili and Kenny’s domestic struggles, Cindy’s dreams — these people become family. When Bulletproof and Michael share stories of how they lost their children it’s completely heartbreaking. A scene where we watch Insane Wayne deliver a hilariously maniacal sex rant is disturbing and unnerving and also one of the most honest depictions of carnal desire ever recorded. The unflinching camera puts us into places we may not want to be, but this is not simple provocation. What is documentary if not the gift of going somewhere and not turning away from what you find? To turn away from Slab City is to give up a full knowledge of ourselves.

For its uncompromised portrait of dignified survival at the edge of the world, Below Sea Level demands to be seen and deserves to be elevated into the cinematic nonfiction canon.

Unfortunately, the film is not currently available, but you can watch a clip here:

BELOW SEA LEVEL from Indieair Films+Communication on Vimeo.