An Interview with Alma Har’el, Director Of Bombay Beach

Bombay Beach shook Hope Lies At 24 Frames Per Second to it’s very foundations whence we caught it at it’s UK Premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest last June. Making for a unique and unusual docu-fantasy-experience, we quite literally saw nothing like it all year. To mark the films UK theatrical release, Nathanael Smith caught up with the film’s director, Alma Har’el. 

Bombay Beach is the beautiful documentary about the town of the same name from Israeli-born Music Video director Alma Har’el. It tells the story of three of the towns inhabitants – bright and unique yet directionless child Benny, college hopeful CeeJay and the wise old man Red. Featuring music from Beirut and Bob Dylan, as well as stunning cinematography and inventive dance sequences, it’s an unforgettable piece of documentary film making, and here Har’el explores further some of the themes within the film, as well as how she came to find the town in the first place.

Hope Lies – Bombay Beach is an incredible place, how did you discover it and what first drew you there?

Alma Har’el – I worked as a music video director with a band called Beirut and we were doing this low-fi music video by ourselves with a small camera, and we were shooting it in LA and then we sorta wanted to a back story for it, I wanted to do that, and Zach (Condon, lead singer of Beirut) told me he was going to Coachella, to perform there, it’s a music festival in the desert about an hour and a half from Palm Springs, so I ended up going there with him thinking I would film him. But it was very chaotic, and I was staying with the band and then at a certain point a friend said “well, I know you’re not shooting yet but I know you wanted to do some location scouting so why I don’t I show you this place that I think you are gonna love.”

And he took me there, and I arrived there and I was so haunted by it and affected by it that I had to come back the same day, at night, and the day after I came back again and I met two kids at the beach, and one of them was Benny, whose in the film, and Mike, his brother. I asked them if they wanted to be in the music video, and I shot the background for the music video then and there, that afternoon. Then the music video came out for a song called Concubine and I really just loved it so much that I wanted to come back and do a whole film there.

So Zach was quite involved from the beginning?

Yeah, I told him I’m coming back there and I’m gonna do a whole film, and I hoped that he would do the music for it and when I had some footage I’d send it to him. One of the first things I shot was the scene with Benny and the pink wig. I sent it to Zach and said ‘This is what I’m doing, do you wanna do the music for it.’ He loved it and just said ‘tell me what you need.’ So I asked him to send me all these songs that I wanted in separated tracks, so I could get each instrument separately and his vocals and just use what I need. And when I was editing I used all that as far as I could until I had a rough cut, then I went to New Mexico for a week and stayed with him and we just saw the film on my laptop at his studio and he composed whatever was missing and we just finalised it.

Obviously your background in music videos comes through in the choreographed sequences. At what point did you figure you wanted to get some dance involved in the film?

I had the idea to make a documentary with dance sequences a year before I made the film, and I was talking about it with people I wanted to do it, but I didn’t know where I wanted to do it. I knew I wanted to do it with people that are non-dancers and have nothing to do with the art. I just had to find the right place. And when I found Bombay Beach it seemed that it would be a perfect backdrop to that. So the idea was there from the start, and when I presented it to them I told them I wanted to do a documentary with dance sequences and if they would agree. A lot of that dictated who stayed until the end and who wouldn’t.

How did you go about choosing the people to profile? There was clearly any number of stories that could have been told with all these fascinating people.

Yeah, I shot 160 hours, so I went there without any research. I moved there for five months and just started wandering the streets, meeting people in the grocery store, or just seeing people in the street and walking up to them and asking if I can start filming them and following them around. So I followed a lot of people, and just slowly it was clear that these three characters together form something very special, because of their different ages and also because they were such interesting people and I developed a relationship with them. I really felt like I could make them my collaborators, because the film is not a usual documentary so I really needed them to be part of what I was doing, in many ways, and agree to do things with me.

160 hours… that’s a lot of footage. The saying goes that a film is found in the edit…

Definitely this film.

You were Editor as well as Cinematographer and Director, so how true was this, for you?

Well I edited this film with two great guys. For both of them it was their first film. I met a lot of people that I wanted to hire as editors but I wanted to edit it myself, too. I wanted to work with somebody. Some of the people I met that had more experience and had already edited a lot of films had a lot of, I would say, preconceived ideas about what works and what doesn’t, and were very afraid of the idea of having music sequences with dance, and none of the sound of the characters. They thought that because was not the kind of music that these characters would necessarily listen to, and because you don’t hear them talk and move while they do it, that it would make it superficial, that it would make it just a music video. So they had a lot of pressure, whenever I met with those people, that they would negate my initial idea all the time.

Then I met a very young guy, he’s 24 years old, named Joseph Lindquist, and another guy who came in as an editor’s assistant but did a lot of editing, too, named Terry Yeates. And they were just so open, and excited about the concept and had never edited a film before, and were just into doing something new and finding the film, and the tone of the film. They were also not driven by usual ideas of ‘What’s the story? What’s the story?’ It’s not that we didn’t have a story, and it’s not that we didn’t have to find each character’s story and what happened to them, but we didn’t let that, necessarily, be the first thing that dictated what we were doing. It was more, there were a lot of other elements, too, because we had to let the dance sequences come at certain points in the film, and that was very important.

So the whole editing process, I would also go and shoot stuff. We would edit, and I would feel that something was missing and I would go and shoot it, or another dance. Some things like that. We definitely made most of the film, and the structure of it, in the editing room. It’s very true. We would have all these cards on the wall with all the scenes and slowly we would build the structure, and the first cut we had was four hours. We had to work it down from there, obviously.

If we look at each of the individual characters, there are, although it’s a more impressionistic documentary, arcs or themes running throughout the film. Looking at Benny, for instance, there’s one scene that stood out to me, when Benny was being left out by his friends and he is framed against an American flag. And in another, he doesn’t stand for the pledge of allegiance. Do you think he represents the people let down by America?

Yeah, definitely. He’s one of the children that has been let down by America. I mean, he lives in an area that has been forgotten by the county and the people don’t try to help the people that live there. And the kind of medical help that he gets is not helping him. And he is in great trouble at school, he needs a lot of help and the place that he lives at has no activities for children, and nothing to do. It’s a complicated thing to say ‘let down by America’ and I find that a lot of people around the world, and I was one of them because I moved to America four years ago, have a pretty narrowed down view of America. And it definitely has right now a certain… reputation I would say, or just a certain image. But the truth is that when you go and you move in to the country, you see how complicated it is, you see how big America is, how many people live there. How hard it is to take care… I mean it’s such a huge country. And you also see how complicated the American Dream, that has failed, has made it for a lot of people. And the Parrishes are a great example of that, because they grew up on a fantasy of army, and weapons and made that into their hobby and their lives. They had no education, and at the same time they tried to be part of something that doesn’t exist any more and they ended up in jail because of it. Their child is this beautiful, creative, smart kid that doesn’t even really know what he was born into. And that flag is something that they put into their apartment. They love America. At the same time, when you hear the pledge of allegiance and you hear them say ‘Justice for All’ and you see him sitting there, obviously it’s very strong. To see how little justice there is in his life.

He’s a contrast to Red…

Hopefully the other characters show you that there’s different destinies for everybody in America, and we don’t know what’s gonna happen to Benny when he grows up.

Red seems quite content with his lot in life, doesn’t he?

He loves it! He enjoys it, he thinks that not knowing where his next meal comes from is the best excitement that a person can have. Red is a mythological figure…

The old man of the west.

He is, he is. I always say that he is the Marlborough man that never gets cancer. This man is bigger than life in a lot ways, because he’s really just part of the land. He went through so many things in America: he lived through the dust bowl era; he worked in the oil fields. He’s the mythological character.

And he loves freedom. Which is what America really stood for when it began.

As he’s the product of old America, he often comes up with some slightly… racist remarks.

Yeah, he does.

Did you find this difficult? What were your thoughts on keeping that in the film?

Well it’s interesting with Red because the kind of racism he expresses, if you notice, doesn’t come from the superior race agenda of, maybe early America, where they say that these people are less than my race, and should be slaves, or they should be exterminated. It’s not that kind of racism. It’s a much more practical, sort of, racism that was handed down to him. He says “If blacks and whites have children, their children are gonna be very confused.” He says “The poor little devils, they won’t know who they are.” So to him it’s more about identity and confusion. But when he talks about black people, and I have a lot times when he does talk about them, it sounds racist at first when you listen to it. But then he says that his whole life he was jealous of them because his parents had told him that they are always happy. Which is a racist thing to say, because you assume something about a whole race, but at the same time it’s a romantic notion. And when he describes black people, it’s always in a romantic way. He always talks about their beautiful skin, and how they dance. So it’s not black and white. I think every character in this film, and what’s interesting about it, is that it’s complicated, and it has a lot of contrasts in it. He’s not a racist, he’s just a product of his era.

And actually there is a lot of wisdom in his voice overs, and they are very poetical, aren’t they?

Very. And I love listening to him. And his language is so beautiful… nobody talks like that any more.

It sometimes comes across as like a Terrence Malick voice over.

I love Terrence Malick.

Apart from anything it’s not scripted, it’s just his thoughts. It works beautifully with the voice over the montages.

I love what he says at the beginning about what love is. How when you are a kid, I bet you loved seeing your Dad give your Mum a hug or a kiss. And he says that if you’ve seen love when you were a child then it will install something, a sense of love, in you. The ability to love. And if you didn’t, then you are going to end up a lonesome man. Which is what he is. Because he feels about himself that he didn’t see love. He had a very hard relationship with his Mum and he left the house when he was 13. So he’s very lonely but at the same time he’s very thoughtful, and very free, in many ways. He’s such a fascinating, kind character. So I’d never call him a racist. Although there is a lot of racism in him, I just think that it’s complicated.

I really liked CeeJay because he was a dreamer. He had a vision to move and he was very creative. It’s one of the big themes of the film – creativity even in this place that America seems to have forgotten. Out of personal investment in his story, where is he now because I desperately wanted him to succeed.

He did succeed! He got a full scholarship to a University in Nebraska and he has left Bombay Beach, the first of his family to go to college. And it is amazing because it’s also another interesting thing about the concept of the American dream because you see someone who has left Los Angeles to go to Salton Sea to make it. He left the place the place everyone dreams to go to, to a place that’s dead and forgotten so that he can make it. That just shows you how poor the American dream is doing. And at the same time what he did there is he created this world for himself that allowed him in a way to go back to the American Dream because now, by working hard, he got a full scholarship to go to college, which is like the American doctrine. If you work hard, you get what you want, and fulfil your dreams and all that.

So on one hand he represents everything that doesn’t work. And then on the other, how it still works. That’s what’s really interesting about America right now. I think America in general is really interesting right now because it’s going down, economically and culturally yet at the same time there are so many talented and creative people in America, that are hard working, and I think what we are used to associating with America right now is the corporations and the ass holes that destroy people’s lives. At the same time you see the people in America, and the people in this film, they’re just so… precious to me. I just feel like they are so genuine and I feel like they are… they couldn’t have been anywhere else.

Could you shed some light on the fire engine sequence at the end? What was your inspiration for that?

Well I always saw that fire truck as… Bombay Beach is so desolate, there’s really nothing there, and the only beautiful, shiny thing there is that fire truck. And it just stands there. I always thought of Benny as someone that needs to… [searches for the correct English phrase]… put out fires. To put out the fires of his parents, the fires of the past. And the whole idea of him wanting to be a fireman, and then maybe, possibly in the future getting the chance. Because Red says in the end, when you see Benny, that he doesn’t like to say goodbye because he doesn’t like talking about something so definite, and you don’t know what the future holds. It takes a whole community to raise a child, he says, but you must remember even the best raised child can turn bad because of his inner thoughts.

And it’s just, you know, that question. Because the opposite is also true. Even if the whole community can’t raise this child, he can still turn good because of his inner thoughts, because he is so creative, and beautiful. It echoes as what it is, but also the opposite of that. Also the fantasy sequence… I don’t really like putting it in words because I feel the images say it so much better. It’s just him driving around Bombay Beach to Bob Dylan. And the song, I almost feel like it was written for Benny every time I hear it because there’s a sentence, it says at the end, that I feel could be about him and about my film. “Dreams where the umbrella is folded, into the path you are hurled, and the cards are no good that you are holding, unless they’re from another world.” And I just think that about Benny. People don’t always listen to the lyrics, just the music, but I think it’s really important.

Details of where Bombay Beach is showing can be found on Dogwoof’s website: http://dogwoof.com/films/bombay-beach

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