SLAB CITY: Somewhere in the Californian part of the Sonoran desert, in between various military bases, lies Slab City – a squatter community.
During winter time many people bring their trailers in Slab City, most of them co-called “snowbirds” in search of freedom and a cheap and warm place to spend the cold season. But in summer, when the temperatures reaches merciless levels, these people move to cooler places. A core community of inhabitants is left behind. For the permanent residents of Slab City, freedom is a byproduct of poverty and of not fitting in anywhere else. This film is a portrait of their struggle to maintain a sense of connection in a desolate place.
Generally, there is something romantic about the idea of living off the grid. But there is nothing romantic about living in Slab City. In fact the place is hardly a city, and more a community of improvised houses and caravans – and other than some picturesque views of the desert, Slab City doesn’t have much to offer.
«For the permanent residents of Slab City, freedom is a by-product of poverty and of not fitting in anywhere else.»
Standout characters. People depend on each other here, and scarcity is one of the things that make simple routines important and small gestures of kindness significant. One routine that brings people together is the 7 AM coffee that Rob Lane serves every day at his café. The coffee is unsophisticatedly served; just simple coffee made on a stove and poured into mugs, plastic bottles and improvised glasses. But it is “the best coffee in the neighbourhood” and it makes everyone gather at Rob’s improvised internet café to socialize and make use of the wireless network. These are the misfits among misfits, and they are also very human, vulnerable and in many ways relatable.
The film is centred on Rob Lane and his role in the community. Years past, he exchanged his truck for his current residence in Slab City. There is also the story of Donita, a middle-aged woman who found peace in Slab City after getting out of jail, and who likes to dance on Saturday nights. There is Zack, the troubled young man who loves dogs and who found guidance in Rob, but struggles to keep out of trouble. And there are others like them – and as you get to know their stories, they all feel strangely dear and familiar.
Unpredictable. But there is an emotional twist to this carefully constructed empathy that arises. Every time you feel for these people as a viewer, you sense that they are like you – but then, they’re not really. There is a volatile sense of the unpredictable in the air, something which is present but difficult to pinpoint, but which provides a sense that in this almost regular community things can escalate, and easily. One can never know what might trigger the shift; it can be the loud neighbours, or the meth addicts hanging around. It can be a misunderstanding or an impulse, but something can happen at any time.
«Rob and his co-citizens are good, or at the very least they want to be good.»
Still, Rob and the others indirectly reassure the viewer that there is nothing to worry about. There is something terribly bittersweet in their eagerness to be their best selves in front of the camera, and convince the viewer that life in Slab City is not that far removed from regular life patterns. Rob and his co-citizens are good, or at the very least they want to be good. They care and they have a sense of morality – or try their best, considering their circumstances.
Nevertheless, the sense of instinctive precaution in the viewer remains; not as an explicit and direct understanding, but more like an underlying theme that links everything in the film together. This precaution is also powered by the camera’s close-ups on details, such as the rotten teeth, the flies that are everywhere, the dust blown by the wind, and the tiny sparks of madness captured in people’s eyes. These are the details that put everything in perspective, and make one realize just how fragile the balance is between freedom and a vagrant life in Slab Cit. The ongoing process of creating this balance is the true essence of these people’s lives.
This balance is the community’s compass and provides everyone with a sense of normality. At its core, Desert Coffee is about a sense of normality in a “wild place”, and a portrait of how humanity, community and freedom can coexist with poverty and social outcasts. It is a portrait that challenges the standard notions of home and belonging, and our ideas of what these should look like. Because in Slab City these concepts take a form that look nothing like what we know, not even like something we might desire; yet they are very much present, created anew every day by people who never fit in anywhere until they found each other in this place.