Review by Mark Schwab
July 10th, 2018
The rock-solid filmmaking team of Stacey Stone and Diane Mellen (GANDER and MY OWN WAR) are back with UNACCOUNTABLE - a short documentary on the strange and tragic topography that is the Imperial Valley and Salton Sea.
Located in the southeastern desert edges of California, just 60 miles from the Mexican border, today the Salton Sea has become a symbol of man's folly in environmental arrogance. Created almost by accident when the Colorado River breached levees and flooded the valley, people thought a new desert paradise was gifted to them. Nicknamed, "The Salton Riviera" and branded as "Palm Springs with water", resorts were built, the population swelled to 15,000 and tourists came literally by the boatload. All of this is effectively shown with wonderfully cheesy archival footage from the late 50's singing its praises and showing happy families with big smiles pulling huge fish out of the lake.
It did not last long though as a terrible chain of events caused a domino effect of environmental disaster - farm fertilizer runoff polluted the water supply which had no drainage which then caused algae to flourish which then caused bacteria to feed off it which then created hydrogen sulfide gas which then began killing fish and birds by the thousands. The carcasses then decomposed on the hot and salty shores. The strong winds which come up semi-regularly then blew all of these particles into the air making it dangerous to even breathe. Needless to say, the bulk of the population and tourists ran from the place while holding their nose.
Stone's documentary shows you the Salton Sea today and it is pretty much a literal ghost town - a hollowed out husk of dreams dashed. What is shocking is that people are still living there (and the state still ridiculously charges tourists to park and camp there), including the young girl narrator who speaks in a sad and defeated tone about the harsh conditions and economic slavery (everyone works in the agriculture industry which, outrageously, continues to poison the very place where they are still living). There is a lot of history in this subject and plenty of outrage to go around for sure and I wish Stone had been able to visualize more of the issues. Most of what I described above regarding the history was researched by me outside of what is shown in the 10-minute doc here - it is very light on hard facts and even people are basically excluded save for one powerfully haunting image of a child on a beach. Admittedly, I wanted a feature-length version of this catastrophe with more context and didn't get it.
But that doesn't mean you shouldn't see UNACCOUNTABLE or won't be affected by what is presented here. For one thing, the imagery is truly beautiful even though it showcases a grim reality. Stone's camera stunningly frames (along with Brian Keane's soulful music) the emptiness and hollowed-out buildings proving what a loss this all is - even in ruin, there is still imagery to catch your breath making it all even sadder.
UNACCOUNTABLE warns that we need to be vigilant stewards of our environment. We casually ignore ecosystems at out peril and the consequences can be dire indeed.