Brighton Festival 2014
Once Bonanza was booming: there were 6,000 inhabitants, 36 saloons, seven dance halls and innumerable prostitutes. Now there are just five houses and seven permanent residents who live on a hotbed of accusations, gossip, surveillance and fear.
Bonanza isn’t quite theatre, it isn’t purely film. Instead it pushes at the edge of documentary making to create a unique style, more interesting and more theatrical than a traditional large cinema screen. There are no live performers, but there is a ‘set’, which is an enormous scale model of the isolated town of Bonanza in Colorado USA. It is a jumble of clapboard, ramshackle houses, strewn across some dirty snow in a valley surrounded by forest. Underneath this model are five smallish screens, upon which are projected films, sometimes the same, sometimes different, which depict the lives of the town’s seven permanent residents.
The film is cut very cleverly, oftentimes with a screen per household – each person or couple having their own small box on which their interviews are always projected. Yet sometimes, the screens link together to display panoramic images of the town, or repeated pictures of the same thing. This works very well indeed – giving an impressive sense of the sprawling nature of this small community, whilst at the same time hinting at its fractured underbelly.
The company who made this film, Berlin, must have spent a very long time in the town, gaining the trust and confidence of its inhabitants, as they interviews they conducted with the residents are insightful and candid. One long-standing member of the community talks very eloquently at the start of the piece about the nature of solitude and isolation, and what it means to live in a community so cut off that they don’t even get TV or radio reception.
The way the film is structured is to introduce us to the characters who live in the town, who talk about themselves, what brought them to Bonanza, and about the history of the town. During the gold rush it was a thriving mining town, the Sodom and Gomorrah of Colorado; full to the brim with brothels and saloons, with not one church. Yet since the mines closed the population has dwindled to a few summer trippers and a handful of hardy, mad, year round occupants.
Berlin paints a picture of a community that is isolated, yet quaint and quirky, and it is not until towards the end of the film that the black heart of the town is revealed – a cornucopia of gossip, feuds, law suits and restraining orders. It is fascinating, but comes too late. Whilst the film is generally a success, it is overlong. The exposition could be heavily edited, and equal weight should have been given to the latter part (and more interesting part) of the story.
It was also surprising to see as the final credits rolled, that the film was made in 2006. Now there is nothing to say that a festival must always premiere shows, however, with a story such as this, which was clearly made at least 2 years before it’s first showing, I did feel slightly cheated that what we had seen was filmed over ten years ago. A key part of the documentary is that it is showing a particular period in time for a town whose very existence hangs in the balance. So the fact that I could now so easily Google what happened to the town over 8 years ago, makes the whole piece feel a little less relevant and exciting.