Welcome to Imperial Valley California once a place of huge popularity abuzz with holidaymakers and tourists but now a polluted wasteland of sand, mud and fish bones.
Documentarian Stacey Stone, who has featured on Screen Critix before with the brilliant Gander: America’s Hero Dog and The Man Behind 55,000 Dresses, stays close to home and gives us an insight into where she grew up. A once thriving resort town that, for over the past sixty years, has suffered an immense economic and environmental downturn that has changed it beyond all recognition.
“Here is truly a miracle in the desert, a whole new outlet for the crowded millions in big cities. A Palm Springs with water. Here is where you can find the good life in the sun. Today The Salton Riviera beside the blue Salton Sea is the place for you to take charge of your future.”
And so opens Stacey Stone’s thought-provoking 10 minute documentary ‘Unaccountable’, with a brilliantly cheesy 50’s promotional film selling all of the good points of ‘The Salton Riviera’. The Salton Sea is the largest lake in California. It was created by flooding in 1905 when excessive water caused the Colorado River to spill over into man-made irrigation channels and poured into a 40-mile flatbed of pure desert. According to reports it took two years to completely stop the flooding. Then 50 years later the land was pounced on by developers and turned into a resort paradise for boaters, water skiers, and holidaymakers. Suddenly the town’s population grew to 15,000 while thousands of more tourists flocked to the ‘Salton Riviera and its ‘sea’ every single weekend.
The good times would all end in the 70’s however when disaster struck, thousands of fish died and began floating to the surface. Waste coming from the towns huge agricultural industry, especially fertilizers from local farms where polluting the Salton, with no drainage this caused a growth in algae and when algae die the bacteria that eat it creates hydrogen sulfide gas. Hydrogen sulfide gas was the poison gas used in World War I and it was this that was killing the fish and then the birds that ate the fish. Fish bones and bird carcasses are not really the ideal look for a family-friendly holiday resort and when people local to the lake told authorities they could smell and taste the gas in the air. People wisely moved away and tourists never returned.
Stone films and frames her documentary beautifully we have a lot of moody shots of fish bones, dead birds, crumbling shacks, and trailers and it is a very interesting, if somewhat heartbreaking story she shares with us. Her narration is steady with enough emotion to make us realise she cares about her town but not too much that it becomes self-indulgent. I also really admired her for staying behind the camera. Unlike her more famous documentarian peers like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock who seem unable to stop themselves from becoming front and centre in their films. Taking a backseat when she has every right not to, tells me that she is a very compassionate person. This film isn’t about her it’s about her neighborhood, her friends, her family and they should all be very proud of her.
If there is one criticism about Stone’s and writer Diane Mellen’s ‘Unaccountable’ that costs them a “5-star review” it’s that they don’t tell us the full story or gives us enough information about The Salton Riviera itself. How did it happen? How did it become so popular and then how did it die so painfully? The history of Salton Lake that I wrote about during the opening of the review I had to source for myself but if Stone had told us the full story of the place during the short I feel it would have made a huge difference to the experience and I also believe it would have provided the audience with a much bigger emotional punch.
That said ‘Unaccountable’ remains an excellent short documentary and I have no doubt that although she comes from The Salton Riviera, Stacey Stone has the talent and the ability to make a huge splash at The French Riviera.