I met with the amazing, charismatic and riveting documentary director Alma Har’el, to discuss her first film, the documentary “Bombay Beach,” which is shaping up to be the surprise runaway hit of the Tribeca Film Festival. Shot on a $600 consumer camcorder (using 35 mm lenses), Har’el discusses her background in photography, music videos, video/concert imagery, and PSAs, how she secured three Bob Dylan songs, and her obsessive love for the band Beirut, whose music comprises most of her magical soundtrack.
Tracking the lives of a young high school football player, and an 86-year old former American bad-ass, and a struggling family with a riveting six-year old on prescription medication, all living in the surreal badlands of “Bombay Beach,” the seemingly post-apocalyptic wasteland of the Salton Sea in California. Moving literally into the neighborhood for a year, Har’el was able to obtain an intimacy that is graciously strong and moving, and her visual style, that while many will simply term “experimental,” really defies description in its ability to saturate the landscape with its use of set pieces, color and brilliant use of staged choreography. The documentary is groundbreaking in its use of these methods, and in the way it conveys her point of view without employing the usual methods of talking heads, reality TV-like shots, or straight-up narrative.
Har’el is completely passionate about what she does, and radiates the contentment of an artist who has found her genuine calling. She is currently writing her first feature film, and sat down with us to dig into her life-changing experience making “Bombay Beach.” Please see it at Tribeca this week , and go HERE for showtimes.
Vimooz.com: I’m dying to know how you found the location for the film:
Alma Har’el: It was kind of one of the most spontaneous, random things I’ve ever done. I went with Zach to Coachella, and I was thinking that id film him there to complement a music video that we started shooting in LA, which was also kind of spontaneous. But it was really busy at Coachella, and we were all kind staying up late, drinking and talking, so no one was into getting up at 5 am to shoot a music video. So, a friend of mine said, you should really check out the Salton Sea. And we ended up at Bombay Beach and I was blown away by the energy of the place, and was really curious about the people who lived there. I’m from Israel and had moved to LA, but never had had my driver’s license until recently. I was so obsessed with making this film, so I said ok, I want to drive on the freeway, I need to get there! I hated the freeway! So, I got my dog, packed up my car, and bought a camcorder from, I think, Best Buy.
Vimooz.com: I was so curious about this. Why did you choose such an inexpensive camera?
AH: I wanted a camera I could use alone without anyone helping me, and that I could record sound on, but I shot a music video as a kind of test and it turned out great, one of them was a Beirut video. That’s actually how I met Benny and his brother mike, and said, do you wanna be in a music video, I have the costumes at the car? I shot it at sunset and his parents came, and told me their whole life story. I thought it just looked so much better than how the better, sharper DV cameras looked.
I met a guy named Martin, who was a hitchhiker, who introduced me to Red, and I started meeting more and more people and I started editing as I put the story together, and found a great editor. Than I brought Zach in.
Vimooz.com: How did you gain entrée with everyone there? It’s such a closed community, it seems. Where were you staying?
AH: I waned to stay at Bombay Beach at first but its really hard because I was alone. It was a little scary. I focused on a lot of characters I related to, but there were some other characters there, too. And I had all my equipment there but I found a woman who had a bed and breakfast there, with these two tiny rooms. When I told her I was a filmmaker, she said oh, they just a shot a horror porn film here, it took me three days to clean the blood! I was like, great, I’ll take it!
Later I rented a place in Indo, which was an hour’s drive away, which was good to go to at night. I lived on so much junk food, there’s just one grocery store with all this candy! No produce at all.
Vimooz.com: How does it feel to have the film to have the film so well received at Tribeca and Berlin Film Festivals?
More than I could ever expect! Some of it’s really cool, they had a pic of Benny in the “NY Times” this week! That’s insane! I’m gonna frame it and put it in their house. I’ve never done a film, they’ve never done a film, we were all doing it together. Its not like one of those topical docs that treats its subjects as subjects. Benny and everyone else were my collaborators, they were very much involved in how we told the story. It was so cool for them- to be part of the film process. Michael was like “How did we get up there?” when I showed him the first footage. On the one hand, it’s such a tragic place, Bombay Beach, and the other, it’s the most wonderful full-of-life place…I mean… their endurance. It’s like the American dream kind of collapsed on their head.
Vimooz.com: Did you have a background in dance? (There is beautifully staged choreography in the film)
AH: Well like every little girl, I wanted to be a ballerina, and was in ballet class. When I was about seven or eight, I saw this documentary. And they said that not everyone can be a ballerina, because of certain things, like muscle length, that would dictate your ability to become a dancer. And I’m like, yeah, I’m not that flexible! I went to class the next day, and told the teacher, “I saw this documentary. Half these girls are not going to be ballerinas!”
Vimooz.com: How did you start to become interested in film?
AH: I then went into acting, but never studied film. I hosted a music TV show in Israel, did a bit of modeling and commercials, so I went to NY, started waiting tables, and got my first camera. My boyfriend had a band, and said, why don’t you shoot the album cover? Then, I did their music video.
Vimooz.com: So, it just sort of intuitively happened?
AH: Exactly. Then, I was invited by National Geographic to host these adventure videos, sort of extreme sports stuff. So I said, I’ll host it if you let me direct it! And they agreed and I did 24 episodes. I then started video art, as well, which led into V-Jaying (doing live video art at rock concerts.) Then I met my husband, and moved to Los Angeles. And I discovered Zach Condon’s music, and it made me feel so connected in America. I put together in a music video of footage I found on EBay of old home video footage, and I cut together a piece to a song of his called Postcards from Italy. And he loved it, and we worked together for four years, and we did like five or six music videos together.
Vimooz.com: How did you get the Bob Dylan songs onto the soundtrack of Bombay Beach?
AH: Well, I was directing some PSAs for the Obama Campaign, and met director Jesse Dylan, who is his son. We started working on more PSAs together. When I was shooting “Bombay Beach,” I knew when I saw the footage of Red, I thought, Dylan and Red, I couldn’t think of anything stronger. Jesse introduced me to (Dylan’s manager) Jeff Rosen, and he loved it, and literally told me I could choose any song I wanted. I picked three.
Vimooz.com: What do you see for yourself, going to into the future?
AH: I think I’m just starting to understand the kind of attention (“Bombay Beach”) is getting. I don’t know what it leads to. I just know that I have a manager suddenly, and he’s really cool! I hope it will lead into making more films, because I think it’s the only thing that I’m good for, in a way. I don’t think there’s anything that gets my attention, and makes me want to do the best that I can. But that’s it. I’m working on a narrative script now. But I want it to have the same kind of exploration into the medium. Like with dance, for example. I just want to be kind of free about how I approach it, and there’s something about capturing life and intimacy, that I’m looking to find a way to combine this feeling of story-telling to find something that’s really free. And I actually have a part in it for Benny! He loves the camera. I’m not a person that’s one-track minded. People always ask me, “Why?” Why that choice, why that color? What were the reasons? What were you trying to get people to feel? I’m not baking a cookie, here! It’s not a recipe (for success.) All I want is to keep some of the freedom intact in the way I work. I just hope I can keep working like that.