When I watched Alma Har’el’s “Bombay Beach” back in May during the Tribeca Film Festival, I knew it marked the breakthrough of an artist unlike what we’re used to, certainly not in the documentary world. Following three real characters living in the eponymous community on the eastern coast of California’s Salton Sea, it’s primarily considered a doc despite Har’el’s stylistic choice to have her subjects occasionally break out into dance numbers set to the music of Beirut and Bob Dylan. In my original capsule review, I called it “part MTV, part PBS.”
Now, as the film is set to open in theaters, I am hopeful it will be a huge hit even though it’s not easily classifiable or marketable. It is, I believe, easily accessible. It’s just one of those great works simply for all people who love cinema, fiction or nonfiction. This week I sat with Har’el to chat about the idea and intentions for the film, the two Oscar-nominated docs that partly, unconsciously influenced it, and why we shouldn’t concern ourselves with this very first question that’s on most people’s minds after seeing it:
HOW MUCH OF THE FILM IS TRUTH AND HOW MUCH IS FICTION?
It’s all true. I don’t know what truth is, though. I think it’s a lot truer than I intended it to be. When I went out there, I set out to do something more loose.
WHAT WAS THE INITIAL IDEA BEHIND THE FILM?
From the start I wanted to have dance sequences. I wanted to make a film with dance sequences where the people are non-dancers. And have the dances sort of come out of their lives and allow them to physically explore situations or ideas that either they had about their lives or that I had about their lives. So that was the first thing that came to me, before I even knew Bombay Beach. When I found Bombay Beach I thought I really should do it over there.
When I came there I had no research, no script, and I didn’t know which characters I was going to do the film about. I met Benny and Mike, his brother, because I was doing a music video for Beirut. We ended up there because we were in Coachella, and I met their family, the Parishes, and I really wanted to tell their story. I discovered a lot of it while I was making the film. I wanted it to explore my imagination, their imaginations — certain situations that could be more narrative and scripted, or improvised.
SO YOU STAGED THINGS OTHER THAN THE DANCING?
But I ended up never scripting anything. Nothing in the film is scripted. So it ended up being a lot less … I never wrote something and said, “Hey, you should say that.” It was more improvised. I guess for documentary purists it’s a problem. But I don’t see myself as a documentarian. Or a filmmaker, or anything. I’m just a person who likes to express herself and who is finding her way through it.
I find that things like that can be uncomfortable to watch sometimes, when I see films and I don’t know what liberties were taken with the people in them or how much they were aware of what they were doing. That makes me uncomfortable. But with my film there was such a full awareness of my subjects, of what we were doing. They were my collaborators. I would show them what I shot after editing it, and part of the reason they wanted to do this is they loved the stuff they saw the day before. Maybe that’s also a problem?
I literally need to sit with somebody and have him tell me what is considered what. Because I have no idea. I never went to university or studied film, and I have no idea what are the rules of the genre. I can guess just by my experience of watching documentaries. But I find a lot of documentaries irritating, because I feel how staged they are and how much work the filmmakers are putting into it to make it look like they just captured a moment. Two people meeting at the airport for the first time, or a couple having a conversation about what they’re going to do tomorrow — you can see where they needed this as a bridge between two scenes.
BUT YOU’RE MORE UP FRONT ABOUT YOUR INVOLVEMENT WITH YOUR SUBJECTS. ONE THING THAT I FIND IMPORTANT TO THINK ABOUT IS HOW IT WORKS THE OTHER WAY, TOO. SUBJECTS AGREE TO BE FILMED, THEY PLAN AND ARRANGE TIMES TO WORK WITH YOU. THEY MIGHT CHOOSE WORDS MORE CAREFULLY. MOST DOCUMENTARY SUBJECTS ARE COLLABORATORS TO A DEGREE.
I feel like what I did with my film is take something that is real, which is these people and this place, and tried to tell the story in the most cinematic way possible. Using everything that is allowed in cinema — “allowed” is a terrible word; everything that is used in cinema, I guess — and things that I like, like music and dance. I didn’t have any moral boundaries regarding the style. I had moral boundaries regarding the people, and their lives. What I cared about is that my subjects feel comfortable with the story I’m telling, not that the people who watch documentaries would feel comfortable with my filmmaking. It makes no sense to me that people concern themselves with that stuff.
The only people that it should concern are festival programmers that unfortunately have to put films in certain categories. I can’t think of anything more boring, by the way, than categorizing your work before it’s even created.
If you told me that I hurt one of my characters or that I did something against their will, that would be an interesting discussion. By the way, there are great documentaries that do that. And I respect the filmmakers for doing it if it’s for the right reasons, whatever the right reasons are for them or their subjects. But to discuss the filmmaking from a moral point, that’s like asking an artist why he mixed those two colors.
DID YOU SHOW THEM FOOTAGE TO MAINTAIN THEIR APPROVAL?
They just wanted to see the dance scenes, to see how they turned out.
I had a lot of discussions with the Parishes because there’s a lot more to their story, and at a certain point I felt they weren’t too comfortable focusing too much on their own past. And I knew how hard it is for them to expose themselves. It has to do more with Mike’s parents actually. Because the story has another generation behind it, which is the father’s parents, who didn’t want to be in the film. I do have a lot of [unused] footage of them.
Mike’s story and how as a kid he grew up and how he came to live in the desert and play with explosives is fascinating. And to me this was a big part of the story. But I knew his parents didn’t feel comfortable with it, and he didn’t feel comfortable with it, so I took that out of the film and focused it more on Benny. Which I was happy to do, artistically, and out of respect to them and their privacy. There were things we decided they wouldn’t want to share with an audience.
The stuff in the film, they knew it was going to be in the film. The hardest scene we had, that I had to tell them would be in the film, is when Mike gets drunk. I told him that night it was going to be in the film, while he was drunk and angry and asking me to turn the camera off. I said, “I’m turning it off, but what we filmed until now is going to be in the film.” And he said, “That’s okay, just turn it off now.”
AND DID YOU TELL HIM AGAIN ONCE HE WAS SOBER?
Of course, next time I came.
I was living there. We were making this film together. I’m also the kind of person that can’t really hide too much. I guess I can, but in this situation it never happened. I just appreciated them letting me into their lives so much. And I also wasn’t interested in making a film that is about digging things and secrets they’re not interested in telling. That’s just not what’s interesting to me.
I really wanted to make a film that captures something about the surreal quality of a life that is lived on the outskirts of society. I wanted to capture something of the broken American dream. And when something is funny and sad at the same time, the contrast between how tragic this place is and at the same time how much beauty and life there is in it. A dialogue between music and dance and imagination and everyday life.
I didn’t come there with an idea that I’m going to expose these people and show the world their true nature, and have them see things about themselves that they didn’t even know. I might do that movie one day, but if I do it’ll be about politicians, people who really have something to hide, not about people in Bombay Beach.
SO YOU EXPECT TO BE MET WITH MORE CRITICISM FROM DOCUMENTARY PURISTS NOW?
I think it’s going to be a lot more mixed. I think [the film] was spoiled at Tribeca. Festivalgoers are usually more open to hybrids and stuff that is less defined and has more artistic ideas in it. I can’t imagine it will be the same way, because every review was just gushing, and I think it’s a festival thing.
HAVING TERRY GILLIAM PRAISE THE FILM IS JUST PERFECT. I FEEL LIKE IF HE EVER MADE A DOCUMENTARY IT WOULD BE THIS SORT OF FANTASTICAL HYBRID.
He loved it, and I think he did relate to some of those things that you’re saying. I’m a huge Terry Gilliam fan, so I’m sure watching his films infused me with some of those sensibilities. I just came here four years ago, and if you told me then that I’d have a Terry Gilliam quote on a film that I did, I’d probably think you are crazy.
THIS IS A VERY ORIGINAL WORK, BUT WERE THERE ANY OTHER FILMS THAT INFLUENCED IT (BESIDES TERRY GILLIAM’S)?
There are a lot of things that I was influenced by and didn’t know that I was. Now that I’ve been going to festivals and everybody asks what I’m influenced by, literally for the first time in my life I have to really focus and give an account of that. There is something in me that is afraid of it. I’m afraid to think about the reasons for things, because I feel like it’s removing the curtain and killing the magic.
But I did discover there’s this film I saw when I was really young in Israel, and I didn’t know what it was until lately. And I think it really influenced me. It’s called “Streetwise.” I love that film very much. It’s about a bunch of homeless kids in Seattle and it has Tom Waits music and it’s not really completely a documentary. For instance, I know that they told some of the kids to talk to each other about where they’re from. That’s like stuff I did for my film, too.
I also really loved this film I saw that is more of a straight-out documentary. And I know some people had a problem with it because it shows some violence and they were questioning why the filmmakers didn’t interfere. It’s called “Children Underground.” It’s also about homeless children, in Romania. It’s exceptional, a really great film.
Lately I’ve liked so many films. When I grew up in Israel we’d get a lot of stuff on TV that doesn’t have any cultural frame. You don’t have any context for it if you’ve never been to America. There’s a lot stuff that had dance in it, which I loved as a kid because it had dance in it, like “Annie” and “Flashdance.” I had no idea what kind of people these are. I actually just tried to see “Annie” again after not seeing it since then.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW? DO YOU PLAN TO VEER MORE TOWARDS FICTION OR WOULD YOU LIKE TO STICK WITH UNDEFINABLE HYBRIDS?
I’m working on a few things. One is another hybrid thing but it’s much more scripted and it has an actor in it. It’s people and actors together. I think I’m more interested in either narratives or that line between. I just love people, and I love art, and I love mixing it together. Actors are people too, but the life you can find in situations that aren’t scripted is incomparable. Mixing the two together is what’s exciting. I never know what I’m going to do next. I don’t think I’d ever be interested in doing just a straight-out documentary. I love watching them, but I wouldn’t be interested in that.
“Bombay Beach” opens this Friday in New York City and on October 21 in L.A.
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