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Note: This interview originally ran as part of our TFF 2011 Faces of the Festival series. Bombay Beach opens this Friday (October 14) at the IFC Center, and at the Laemmle Sunset 5 on Friday, October 21 in Los Angeles.
With its unique combination of cinema verite, choreography, and music from Bob Dylan and Beirut, the hauntingly beautiful Bombay Beach won over the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival jury, who last month named the film Best Documentary Feature. We recently caught up with the similarly unique Israeli director, Alma Har’el, after her whirlwind of a Festival.
Tribeca: How do you describe Bombay Beach in your own words?
Alma Har’el: Bombay Beach is a documentary about people who live in a forgotten place in the California desert called the Salton Sea. A man-made sea in the middle of the desert that used to be a fancy vacation destination and is now a pool of dead fish with majestic sunsets. The film has choreographed dance sequences, and is shot in a way that’s more typical of a narrative film, so it’s less of a journalistic film; the subjects were my collaborators.
Tribeca: How far is Bombay Beach from LA?
Alma Har’el: About three hours into the desert (near Palm Springs). It’s kind of a big deserted playground with broken houses, buried buses and eroded signs from the 50s. The people who live there have a very special relationship to it. They are either stuck there and hate it, or they can’t feel at ease anywhere else. Boaz Yakin (who produced the film) said, after he visited there, that when you drive away, after about 40 minutes you wonder if it wasn’t a dream. I think that’s a good way to describe it.
Tribeca: How did you find out about it?
Alma Har’el: I’m a music video director, and I work a lot with Zach Condon from the band Beirut, who did the music for the film. [Read an interview with Zach here.] I was doing a music video with him, and we were at the Coachella music festival. While I was scouting for locations, a friend took me to Bombay Beach and I had to go back there right away—a lot of photographers come at sunset to film the decaying buses and the birds. The local people pass by with puzzled faces; they don’t understand why these people take photos.
I started wondering about who lives there. The place is set up like a grid—a deserted piece of Alphabet City in New York—it fascinated and charmed me.
Tribeca: How did you find your subjects?
Alma Har’el: I met the kids and the Parrish family on the beach while doing the music video. I met CeeJay in the street and I met Red through a sweet hitchhiker who used to travel with him. I felt each one of them said something about the mythology of America, about life and about growing up. They were also the people in the community that I related to the most.
Tribeca: Were they receptive to you from the beginning?
Alma Har’el: The subjects of the film were more receptive than others, especially the Parrishes, who made me feel at home right away. Over time they all became my friends. The rest of the community was more suspicious. For a few months, I was fighting rumors that I’m a pedophile from Los Angeles who wants to film the children of Bombay Beach. That was hard, and some parents pulled their children out of the film.
Slowly, through my relationship with more and more people around town, and support I got from the fire department chief, people accepted that I was really trying to make a documentary film.
Tribeca: Let’s talk about the dance. How did you decide to implement choreography into your film? It’s quite unusual for a documentary. Did they look at you like you were bananas when you told them you wanted to do this?
Alma Har’el: About a year before I discovered Bombay Beach, I had the idea to do a documentary with choreographed dance in it, as a way to show things that can’t be said. In order to live in a place like Bombay Beach, you have to be a little off the grid as it is. These people were open-minded and had a certain curiosity and a hunger for creativity and doing something special. At first they resisted me, but I had no problem being the crazy person for a while. I think it only made me more reliable in their eyes.
As a filmmaker, I told them to be intimate and speak truthfully about things that are happening, but with the knowledge that they are making a movie. I think that awareness is something that a lot of subjects in documentaries are being robbed of on screen. Documentaries are made to be seen a lot of times as if they are cinema verite, when it’s obvious that the scene was set up.
I wanted to capture who these people are, but also give them the awareness of what we were doing together, and make them be a part of it.
The dance is what brought a lot of that out, because it was a creative act that left no question as to the fact we were filming something together—something that in the end of the day couldn’t happen or be imagined without them.
Tribeca: Are you a dancer?
Alma Har’el: No. I danced ballet when I was very, very young. Like every little girl, I wanted to be a ballet dancer with a pink tutu. One day, I saw on TV this documentary about how hard it is to become a ballerina. They explained that certain girls can be great dancers, but their physicality, especially the length of their muscles, determines that they can’t be ballerinas. I felt for a while I wasn’t as flexible as some of the other girls, so after watching it I went to my dance class and announced that not everyone there was going to be a ballerina. My teacher was very upset, and possibly some of the girls cried... I was only 6 or 7, but I never really managed to get back to it after that. I always wanted dance to be a part of my life, but I didn’t know how. I went to clubs in Tel Aviv a lot when I was 18 and danced until the morning when the last person would leave. Slowly it found its way back into what I do.
Ultimately, I guess this story is about the fact that film captured my imagination more than dance.
Tribeca: Can you tell us about the music—are those original Bob Dylan songs?
Alma Har’el: No, they’re from his bootleg back catalogue. I was listening to Dylan almost every day while I was in Bombay Beach. The song that ends the film, “A Series of Dreams,” felt to me like it was written about the place, and I would play it in my car again and again. I had this incredible luck to be working with Bob Dylan’s manager, and he liked the film. Jesse Dylan (Bob’s son) helped me, and they decided to support it, even though I had such a small budget. I still can’t believe it sometimes.
Tribeca: What is the biggest thing you learned while making Bombay Beach? What is your advice for people thinking about making films?
Alma Har’el: My best advice to people who aspire to make films is to make them. That’s it. Just find a way to make them, and don’t wait for anybody. You’ll discover while you’re making it what you need to work on and what you’re good at, but you won’t discover it until you make the film. Get all of the “what if” and “when I have X or Y” stuff out of your head, and find a solution that allows you to be creative.
Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker, alive or dead, who would it be?
Alma Har’el: Probably Spike Jonze. I hear he lives in my neighborhood, and I adore his films. Dining with dead people makes me nervous; I’d rather take a stroll with them.
Tribeca: What is one piece of art that you are recommending most to your friends right now?
Alma Har’el: The RadioLab podcast. It’s one of the best things you’ll ever hear. Can I have dinner with them?!?
TribecaFilm.com: Why not? What would your biopic be called?
Alma Har’el: Can I get back you on that?
Check in to Bombay Beach on GetGlue.
Watch the trailer: