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Movie Review

This experimental documentary by Seattle-based director Robinson Devor (“Police Beat,” “Zoo”) circles lots of subjects without quite landing on any — but its evocation of a specific place, California’s Coachella Valley, is indelible. The result: a gorgeously shot film that leaves strong visual memories, while frustrating almost every narrative and informative expectation conjured by the word “documentary.”

It won’t be for everyone.

Some background: The Coachella Valley, extending from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea, sits on an aquifer that makes its irrigated suburban tracts, golf courses and date-palm groves possible. It also occupies former Paiute tribal lands, and a small Native American population still lives there.

Devor gives fragmentary voice to the valley’s inhabitants, including wealthy retirees; paunchy golf addicts; law enforcement officials; a Paiute or two; and a parade of blowzily dressed women who seem to be along for the ride.

The 1909 manhunt for a Paiute Indian accused of murder (basis for the 1969 film “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here”) forms part of the film’s historical backdrop. A white playwright — unidentified, like everyone else in the film — describes his own stage-production take on Willie Boy’s story, while contemporary law officials weigh in on more recent murders and manhunts. (Date-palm groves, it turns out, are great places to dump dead bodies.)

Differences between “Western time” (“It’s linear, it’s measurable”) and “Indian time” (with its “associative power of time”) are discussed. Sean Kirby’s stunning camerawork lets you see the valley from high above, in shots of orderly irrigated suburb ceding abruptly to arid desert expanse. You also see it from below, as water agency officials inspect remarkably photogenic underground pump systems.

Toward the end, we get a glimpse of the annual golf-club celebration that lends the film its name. It started out as Indian-themed, we’re told, but lately has morphed into “a cowboy thing.”

It’s a moment that leaves you pondering a grotesque reality that makes no sense — and that, precisely, is the film’s point.


★★★ “Pow Wow,” a documentary directed by Robinson Devor. 75 minutes. Not rated (contains strong language, graphic descriptions of violence and brief nudity). Grand Illusion, through Thursday.