By Helen Adkins | March 2012
Director, Alma Har’el, chats exclusively to Junsui Films about her spellbinding debut feature, BOMBAY BEACH…
JF: You’ve been a successful music video director for many years. How and why the transition into filmmaking?
Alma Har’el: Bombay Beach partly grew out of a combination of inspiration and desperation. I was becoming frustrated working with music videos, particularly the whole viral element that has started to be part of that industry.
My work as a music video director has always had a lot to do with movement and finding out what I felt was at the heart of a song, and I guess the music industry started to go through changes.
The whole idea of music going viral was something I felt less comfortable with in terms of my own work. It’s not that I’m against that aspect of the music industry, I enjoy it, but as music videos have started to use tricks to attract an audience, I realised that wasn’t how I wanted to work. I wanted to explore movement at a deeper level and tell a story.
JF: How did you come across Bombay Beach and what inspired you to stay and document this inhospitable place?
I heard about Bombay Beach when I was at the Coachella Festival which is about 30 miles away. A friend told me to check it out so I went along and found this strange place. Because I come from Israel, the desert feels very familiar and is a source of comfort for me. I love it.
I started filming down there and that’s when I met Benny (Parrish) and Mike down at the beach. I got talking to them and started filming them before I even knew their names. Then their parents came out and told me their stories and it just went from there.
I met Red through a hitchhiker in Slab City when I was looking for somewhere to film. He brought me to Red, although he dropped out of the film in the end. But Red stayed. He was so fascinating and unique and had so many stories to tell.
It all progressed through hanging out, walking around the streets. When I met CeeJay, he was with friends and dancing so I asked him if I could film him. He said sure. It was all trial and error really.
JF: Bombay Beach is a unique mix of documentary, movement and music. Was that a conscious decision and how would you describe the film?
It wasn’t so much a conscious decision, but more that the more I got to know these people, the more I felt I wanted to tell their stories. I lived in the area for five months, alone, meeting people, finding out their stories, filming them. It came naturally. There wasn’t a system.
The film is a documentary hybrid, I suppose, although I don’t think I need to define it. It came out of meeting people and feeling compelled to tell their story, but in their own way.
I’ve always been interested in dance and movement but using real people as opposed to professional dancers to convey stories. I’m struck by how characters can be revealed by the way they move.
JF: Describe the working relationship with the characters in the film?
The working relationship I had with the various characters went through many changes. With the Parrishes, we were always very warm and friendly with each other. We’d talk about everything; I got to know them very well. We’d hang out. I’d stay on the floor at their place if it was late.
With CeeJay, it was a little different because he was a teenager, so he’d get bored easily and want to stop filming to do other things. He’d lose concentration, so I’d have to negotiate with him to stay around for filming. Make deals with him to get him interested again; drive him around town, that sort of thing.
Getting to know Red was a slower process. He didn’t trust me at first. He was short with me but with time he began to see me as a cooler individual, I think.
JF: How has the film been received and what next?
I can honestly say it’s really changed my life. I’ve met a lot of incredible people and many of them have reached out and written beautiful things about it. So many good things have come out of the film. It’s the best scenario I could have hoped for.
I’m currently developing two things at the moment. The first is another documentary hybrid, which I’m developing with the money I was awarded from the Tribecca Film Festival. The other project is a straight narrative film and I’m curious about how that will go. It’s certainly a direction I’d like to go in.
Bombay Beach is available on DVD from Dogwoof.