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Below Sea Level (2008)

During a five year period an Italian filmmaker documents the world of down-on-their-luck individuals who live in a Californian desert trying to get by one day at a time. None of them has more than a vehicle, a dog and some clothes.


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During a five year period an Italian filmmaker documents the world of down-on-their-luck individuals who live in a Californian desert trying to get by one day at a time. None of them has more than a vehicle, a dog and some clothes.

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Release Date:

September 2008 (Italy)  »

Also Known As:

Ispod nivoa mora  »

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The finished film is based on roughly 50% of the material shot for a much larger project. It was editor Jacopo Quadri who suggested tightening the narrative focus to obtain a satisfying end result. There were plans to make another, separate film with the remaining footage, but this never came to pass. See more »

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Great as a film, not so great as a documentary, in either case don't miss it
27 January 2010 | by See all my reviews

The biggest strength of this film is that it's about people. No politics, no comments, no analysis. Just people, their lives and their will to move on despite the fact that there is no "on". That might be it's biggest flaw as well...

Californian desert is a place where the "lost", left with nothing but a vehicle and some stuff, come to try to find peace in seclusion and not succumb to tragedy that had destroyed their "normal" lives, or they come simply because they have nowhere else to go. They stay there as long as they want, and no one harasses them for no one lives there and the place is too big to be crowded anyway. People with similar life problems (death of a loved one, jail time, homelessness) slowly make contacts with their neighbor in pain and soon a small unsteady community starts off. There is no electricity, running water, or police, so they find alternate ways for providing things they need. It's almost a post apocalyptic vision of Mad Max (without the violence or gangs) and the fact that these are real people makes the whole thing look even more surreal. The people of this community, whom director chooses to follow through the years, are truly interesting and often sympathetic characters with incredibly quotable dialogs (for a non written film).

This is the main problem with this documentary. It looks like a Jim Jarmusch movie. Documentary is not suppose to look like a movie, because that destroys the impression that what you see is real, and turns compassion into fun. That's not to say that documentaries should be dull, on the contrary. What I mean is that you sometimes have to show the crew of the film. You have to show their impact (which is bound to exist) on the subject of your documenting. You have to show real realism (in which you exist there as well) or this can turn into a Big Brother show with homeless people.

People, who are here because they want absolute privacy and seclusion, completely ignore the camera (the object opposite of privacy) almost the whole time. This often happens when a documentary film crew spends enough time with their subjects. They get used to it. The director was visiting them for five years, but you at least have to show the first couple of times when the people had a problem with his taping. Otherwise it looks ludicrous when people who left civilization (after it gave up on them) to find seclusion, allow to be recorded naked or while telling their life stories that they never told anyone or while having fights and mental breakdowns.

The film is not dull. You want to hear these folks, you want to know what happened to them and how they ended up here. You want for them to make it in the end. Again we see the problem with this movie. You're not suppose to cheer for them (they are not movie characters). You're suppose to be motivated to actually help them somehow. The movie does not clearly point out how completely broken the social system is when it's so easy for anyone to wind up lost in the world, with nothing but a car in which to live out their years of slow and silent demise while hoping for a miracle. There's no message from the director. Viewer can take the movie as he or she wants: A fun but heavy movie about interesting homeless or condemnation of the failure of the system which hadn't, in any way, helped these real live people, whom you might easily join if your life takes a few wrong turns.

There is one final problem with the documentary aspect of this film. I'm sure this wasn't the director's intention, but without some message it seems like director had used these people's stories to make a film, then used the film to make himself a carrier and then completely forgot these people and their plights that made this film possible.

In any case do watch this movie. It is without a doubt one of the best films (not just documentaries) of the year, and it will not leave you without an impression. This film should be seen also because it is truly about people and a battle to keep some dignity even when there is nothing else you can really do with your life. These people are as real as they come, and their plights should be known.

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