Alma Har’el, Bombay Beach
Stunningly shot and formally audacious, Bombay Beach, the first feature of Israeli-born music-video director and cinematographer Alma Har’el, is a rare bird, the type of film that seems to be building its own cinematic language from the ground up. Sure, it embraces some stylistic and thematic similarities with a whole host of filmmaking luminaries, but it is dancing to its very own tune, both literally and figuratively.
Har’el, as we discuss below, quickly entered the lives of various people living around the California hamlet of Bombay Beach, a derelict precinct that was once a haven for zealous developers in the ’60s, after scouting the place for a music video shoot. She found undocumented lives of great wonder and choose to make artwork out of their struggles and eccentricities, their dreams and failures, their prejudices and their grace. Dispatching the term “subjects” for “collaborators,” Har’el creates a visual, highly narrative tone poem concerning a number of snake-bitten but essentially decent and partially victimized people living on the margins of the California desert. With characters that include bi-polar, overmedicated child and his explosives-addicted parents, a mildly racist, trailer-dwelling octogenarian with an ear for poetry and a lovesick football prospect who seeks to escape the ghettos of the Salton Sea through an athletic scholarship, Har’el casts a warm but unforgiving eye on a forgotten corner of America.
Bob Dylan and Beirut both contributed music to the highly atmospheric, oddly touching film, which premiered in Berlin’s Panorama section before making its North American Premiere at Tribeca, where it won the International Documentary Competition’s top prize. While it wears the influence of Harmony Korine, Larry Clark, Lynne Ramsay, David Gordon Green, Charles Burnett and Gus Van Sant (just to name a few), it announces a major new directorial talent in Har’el who is working in a key all her own.
Bombay Beach opens at the IFC Center on Friday.
Filmmaker: Watching your film again I was struck by the notion that this film was made by someone who had an intense connection to this place. How did you first discover Bombay Beach and what about it reached you in such a way that you were compelled to make this film?
Har’el: I stumbled upon it. I work with this band called Beirut, which I love and adore. I’ve been working with them since I came to the US about four or five years ago. I was doing a music video for them and they were playing the Coachella Festival, so I was there with them, hanging out with them, waiting for them to have some time so we could shoot a few things. I was by myself and I was looking for a location to shoot. Zach Condon told me about it and when I saw it, it immediately reminded me of places in Israel I had grown up in that I really loved. Just the idea of a scene in the middle of the desert… I had this immediate interest and I had to see it. These places in Israel that are similar, they are isolated on the outskirts of society. I used to rent a place in Israel that was a little bit like that for awhile where I would go for the weekend. It was this really cheap place, you could get a whole house for a hundred dollars.
Filmmaker: That sounds like a pretty good deal.
Har’el: Its a three hour drive from the nearest town and there is nothing else out there really. I love places like that. I was just talking about this to somebody. You know how when you lose something, you retrace your steps and see if the place you think you left them has a lost and found?
Har’el: I don’t know why I find it so weird that it says “lost and found”, but I do. Anyways, that’s how I felt when I got there. It is a place that both feels really lost and really found at the same time. You feel like you are outside of society in a lot of ways. You know you can hold onto this feeling of being found or having found something because you have to come back at some point and you know your life is not there. There is something about it that always makes me feel so good. I really wanted to come back, so I came back the day after I first had been there. The day after I came back I met Benny and Mike [Parish] at the beach. They were playing at the beach with a friend of the family and I asked them if they wanted to be in a music video. I had a costume in the car and I just sort of put it on Mike and shot my music video right there and it was cool because I didn’t even tell them what my name is and he didn’t even tell me what his is. We just kind of started to film right away. I was alone and I put the costume on him which was this Midnight Cowboy costume and we started filming and it was like when you are kids, you don’t come and start interviewing them before you find out if you can be friends, you don’t go who are you, what do you do, where are you from, you don’t try to find common ground, you just start playing and either it’s fun or it’s not. If it’s fun you keep going and if it’s not you don’t. If it is not fun and you start fighting, you just don’t become friends. It was like that, we just started filming and it was so much fun. The light went down, it was the last hour before sunset and when the light went away I said, “Wow, this is really fun. What is your name?”, and he said, “I’m Mike,” and I said, “I’m Alma,” [laughs] and his parents came to pick them up and I told them that I had just filmed them for this music video, is that okay and they didn’t have a problem with it and I wanted to come back tomorrow and they were like, “yeah, sure.” So I came back the day after and they started telling me their story and everything that had happened and I just immediately wanted to come back and do a whole film there after that whole experience.
Filmmaker: How did you find the other individuals who you ended up profiling in the film? I can’t imagine Red and Mike fly in the same social circles. Did you specifically try to find people who you thought were representative of the place?
Har’el: Well, initially I had the idea to try and raise some money first. I went there one time and walked the streets, just looking for people. I met CeeJay [Thompson]. He was walking down the street with two friends. I asked him if he wanted to be in a film and he was interested so I took a few photos of him. I took some photos of some other people and them I put together a presentation. A few companies were interested in it, but no one was really willing to put money into it because all of them wanted to see something more, all of them weren’t sure what I was talking about regarding the use of dance and all of them wanted to see something that was like that which I couldn’t find. It was funny because they all seemed to like it because it was original and yet they all wanted to see something that was already like it. So I couldn’t get the money and I just started to do it myself. I moved there and I just met people. I was just there for four or five months. I met Red through this other guy named Marty who is a hitckhiker who was I was filming for awhile actually; he’s not in the film, but I was filming him for awhile. One day when I was filming him and asking him to tell me stories he started telling me that I should meet this guy Red who he had hitchhiked with and who had a trailer who’s been around a long time. So you just start meeting people. Its the same way you would when you move anywhere.
Filmmaker: Did you start consistently getting footage of people that interested you after having moved there or did it take a while to build the relationships to the degree that you knew exactly who’s stories you want to tell?
Har’el: I knew from the beginning that the Parishes would be in the film. I was following not just CeeJay but his cousin. I was following them from the start. I met Red maybe a month into being there. I told them that I would come and shoot some of them whenever I could. With the Parishes I would come over almost everyday, with the others whenever I had time. Red was very strict with me in the beginning and would only let me come at certain times. He had this schedule that he would have to fit me into. As we got closer, he trusted me more and it became different between us, but in the beginning it was very much like that.
Filmmaker: It’s a incredible sensual, visually expressive work that feels like it has a polish that suggests the work of a season cadre of filmmakers and an intimacy that would lead me to believe you shot in an artisanal fashion alone with your subjects.
Har’el: I was alone. I had nobody with me. It was just me and this little camera. I was doing the sound with two lav mics. I think that’s part of why it is so intimate.
Filmmaker: How did the intricate use of voice over come about?
Har’el: Different voice overs happened in different ways. Red has most of the voice overs. When I first met him, before we even started to film, I had the idea that he could be some sort of narrator, I love his voice and I love his story. Before I filmed him, I just recorded his voice. I would take him to the beach and we would sit and I would ask him to tell me things about Bombay Beach, about life, about himself. He’s a very thoughtful and reflective person. He just seemed to always have something poetic or interesting to say about life or about the place and I was just trying to get as much as I could from him and gain a collection of Red’s wisdom. As I was doing that, I started to get to know him more. He invited me to go with him on a trip on his four-wheeler. That was actually the first time I really filmed him. I came at three or four in the morning and we went for maybe seven or eight hours into the desert on that four-wheeler. That was the first time I actually filmed him doing something, not just his voice. At that point I decided I wanted him to have more of a presence in the film, but I didn’t know right away what he was going to be in the film. Later on, when we were telling his story and other things had happened to him and I wanted to kind of bridge between, events, sometimes I would ask him to tell me about some things that had happened and tell me about them.
Filmmaker: Are you talking about when he fell ill?
Har’el: Yes, when he has to go to the hospital and there is a sense that he may need to stay with his family and get rehabilitated and he talks about what he does every morning and how he walks and gets the paper and that is exercise for him. That was all recorded when I came to visit him afterwards.
The film itself, it has no rules. Some way I can explain this to you is that different things were done different ways. Things happened differently with each character. It was all very intuitive. These people were my collaborators, not just my subjects. It’s not one of those films where I came there to discover something about them that they maybe didn’t know about themselves or something that they didn’t want me to tell; I wanted to tell their stories. I wanted to tell their story and the story of their imagination and my imagination and how we feel when we are there together and how I feel when I see them there. It’s not just a document of facts I hope. It’s also a mood and an internal feeling when you step into Bombay Beach that I was trying to capture and a side of America that I feel I’ve never seen.
Filmmaker: How long did it take you to cut it?
Har’el: From beginning to end we edited it for eight months. We had 160 hours of footage, which is a lot. We edited it all at my home on a laptop, me and Joey Lundquist. It was his first film. Terry Yates who, was his assistant, did some editing with us. Basically the way we edited it was that each one of us brought a computer and I assembled all the scenes of the Parishes, Joe assembled and edited all the scenes of Red and Terry did all of CeeJay and then we started to weave them together. One of the hardest things was the dance sequences because I wanted them to be spaced out a certain way during the film and they came out of scenes and had to have a certain reason for being tied to certain scenes. I wanted to ease into them and not go right away into the most choreographed ones. There’s two dance sequences that didn’t make it into the film that I really loved. They are so beautiful, but I couldn’t find a place for them in the movie. It was a lot of just trying things, watching the film again and again and seeing what worked. At a certain point we felt like we could show the film to other people and we did, friends I could trust, we got notes from them. That’s how we did it I guess. I feel like I’m talking so much!