Below Sea Level (2008)

Nomadland before Nomadland, Rosi’s raw, no holds barred documentary on folks living in isolation on buses and vans in the Californian desert finds grace and empathy in their existence. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #2,148

Dir. Gianfranco Rosi
2008 | USA/Italy | Documentary | 113 mins | 1.85:1 | English
Not rated – likely to be M18 for nudity

Plot: During a five-year period, Gianfranco Rosi documents the world of down-on-their-luck individuals who live in a Californian desert. They have turned their backs on society, and want to be left alone.
Awards: Won Orrizonti Documentary Award & Doc/It Award; Nom. for Queer Lion (Venice)
International Sales: The Party Film Sales

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Community, Folks on the Fringes
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

This is ‘Nomadland’ before Nomadland (2020), in pure observational documentary form. 

Directed by Gianfranco Rosi, who has made a name for himself as one of the most astute documentarians in the world with films such as Sacro GRA (2013), Fire at Sea (2016) and Notturno (2020), Below Sea Level is an early indicator (only his second feature) of his unobtrusive filmmaking style, one that is also paradoxically penetrating and intimate. 

Here he finds a group of individuals living isolated lives in their proud buses and vans (which are one breakdown away from a life-and-death situation) in the heart of the Californian desert. 

Seeking their acquaintance and earning their trust over several years, Rosi paints us the day-to-day existence of these ‘nomads’ as well as letting them tell their painful stories (of separation, trauma, death, etc.), sometimes through song-writing, as one of them does with poetic grace. 

“That’s the whole point of being out here. If you don’t like it, you start your thing up and you leave.”

Honest and raw, and certainly no holds barred, these folks don’t seem to be aware of the camera (nor do they care about its lingering presence) as they go through the daily grind with absolute freedom.  

In one scene, a man and woman are sort of making love, one that seems far too intimate for a documentarian to capture—this was a point of controversy for some critics who felt Rosi was disrespecting his subjects’ privacy, though others had argued against that reading. 

Below Sea Level may be slow-moving, and perhaps running a tad too long to really truly engage, but that should not distract from the fact that this is the real deal, an eye-opening documentary that reminds us that there are people out there (and surely not just in the States) who live far away from civilisation, though not always by choice. 

Grade: B+


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