Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Bombay Beach director Alma Har’el: Documenting the demise of the American dream

Israeli director Alma Har’el was making a music video when she got hooked by the location, a gone-to-seed resort community on California’s Salton Sea, and two young brothers she found living there. One of the two, sad-eyed Benny Parrish (pictured above with Har’el), became one of main characters of Bombay Beach, Har’el’s first documentary and a gorgeous, quietly eloquent meditation on life on the geographic and economic edge of America.

Elise Nakhnikian: You got pretty amazing access to the people in this film. How did you get them so comfortable with the camera?
Alma Har’el: I think it was a combination of things. One is that I moved there for four or five months while I was filming. The second is that I had no crew. It was just me. I did the sound and the camera, so it was very intimate. The third is that I used a very small, cheap home video camera that it didn't have the kind of threatening presence that some cameras have. And the Parrishes, I think, trusted me very much because they saw this music video I did with their son.

That started the trust and the relationship. Pamela [Benny’s mother] just really appreciated the creative process in general, and she always wanted to take photos herself and do creative things. They’re a creative family. A lot of people have creativity and don’t get to express it.

Also, I was a pain in the ass. I just wouldn't leave. (Laughs) So they had to get used to it.

There’s a sort of innate power differential, usually, when you have a camersomeone’s doing the shooting and someone’s getting shot—
Okay. I didn’t feel that.

I was going to say that it wasn’t so much there in your movie. Did you think of it as a collaboration with the people –
What would you say the power comes from? Just the fact that you have the power over them because you have the footage?

Well, one person is choosing what’s going to get shown and how it’s going to get shown, and which parts do and don’t get used.
Yeah, yeah. That is true, but I made it my first priority on this film to use stuff that wasn’t hurting the people I was filming and that was acceptable for them.

Did you collaborate with them in deciding what to shoot?
No. But there’s a lot of stuff that I decided not to put in because I knew that they wouldn’t be comfortable. Especially the back story of Benny’s dad. His family story goes back another generation. Benny’s father’s story is very interesting, but he didn’t want to appear in the film.

A lot of people ask me about all sorts of rules of documentary that I have to say I’m not familiar with, what’s just truth and just showing life and what’s not, and what’s legitimate, and what’s moral, and all these things. I think what’s most important to me – and maybe the only thing that I really cared about – was that the family I’m filming would be happy with the film when I finished it.

So did you show them a rough cut and take out things they didn’t like?
No, I never showed them a rough cut. They saw the film at Tribeca [Film Festival].

So you just trusted your own instincts about what they’d be comfortable with?
Yeah, it was more like an instinctive thing.

One of the things that comes through really clearly in your film is the wealth gap in America and how poor people are usually invisible to us as a culture. Do you think you see that more clearly because you’re not a native so it’s new to you, or is that something you’re familiar with from Israel?
Both. I’m definitely familiar with these sort of outskirts-of-society ghost towns that are in the desert, because we do have that in Israel. I actually, for a while, spent a lot of time in one of those in Israel. I like those places. I feel that you can very much get lost but at the same time find yourself in them, and feel something very direct about life, and see things clearly for what they are. So I responded to that.

But I also just didn’t know that America had such a side. I obviously grew up on the image of Hollywood in Israel. Coming there and seeing how people lived, and seeing the broken, turned-on-its head American dream, where a kid has to move from Los Angeles to Bombay Beach to make it to college (laughs), and just seeing the health system and just the whole thing. But at the same time, seeing the beauty and the dignity that these people have in their lives. The whole combination felt like something I should capture.

And it also very much relates to the music I love. I love Bob Dylan and Beirut [whose songs are featured in the film]. This is music that I listen to all the time. They’re kind of two bookends of America to me.

Bob Dylan is obviously the blood of this country, and he’s at the same time such an outsider. He’s both one of the most American things you can think of and he also encapsulates so much history and promise for a different America. Bob Dylan in the 60s, and the whole folk thing, rose against a lot of the stuff we see today, like Occupy Wall Street. I won’t say hippie, but what do you call that?

Yeah, I guess. But obviously, it didn’t go that way. And then you have Zach [Condon, Beirut’s leader], who is kind of like a modern version of the troubadour. Zach is very much an American – grew up in the desert, by the way, in Santa Fe and Albuquerque – but he’s free of a lot of history that I feel some artists carry.

I find that both of them have the ability to be genuine and authentic, and at the same time they both have so much style and so much presence and flavor. Their authentic selves and who they are as artists always shines stronger than whatever aesthetic decisions they take, but there’s so much beauty to their style and to the choices that they make.

Speaking of style, can you talk about the look of your film–the soft, warm colors and the soft feel you get by using shallow depth of field?
Yeah, I call it a digital super-8. I fell in love with this camera when I was working with an incredibly talented DP called Matthias Koenigswieser, who shot a music video for me for Jack Peñate. We did this music video in black-and-white on this very small camera, the Canon Vixia, which costs, like, $600 in Best Buy. I loved the softness of it and I loved the colors.

I took that camera to do one more video for Beirut, which was Concubine, the one I was telling you about. I had no budget so I shot it myself. That was the first time I shot anything myself, but this camera was so small I didn’t need a crew. So one thing led to another, I guess they say in English.

But I couldn’t shoot with heavy [professional film] lenses. I was running around with the kids and I was so scared I was going to drop them. Each one was, like, $10,000 and I didn’t have very much insurance. So I brought them back and I went on eBay and bought still camera second-hand lenses. They were a lot lighter and smaller, and not very expensive – just a few hundred bucks. Part of the reason that the film has sort of a vignette to it and a shallow depth of field and a softness is that I used those lenses, and some of them were older and some of them were cheaper and some weren’t as sharp.

The whole way this film was done was half inspiration, half desperation.

Did doing this make you want to do more of your own shooting?
I love shooting. I love it.

The sound is amazing too, at least now that I know you did it. I understand that sound is one of the hardest things to get right.
I recorded all the sound on two lavalier mikes, so the kids could run around and do whatever they wanted. And then in post, I had this great guy named Dror Mohar who does sound, who just as a favor came there with me for a few days and recorded a lot of background and a lot of texture and sound. When we made the film, we added a lot of that and cleared up the sound that I had recorded. So that definitely gave it the sort of clarity and richness that it has now.

But we also kept it very minimalistic. I wanted it to be very quiet, because that’s what it is like over there. It wasn’t an action film where I needed tons of sounds.

There’s a lot of sorrow in this film, which is mostly imposed by outside forces: gun violence, the criminal justice system, racism. But it’s not a sad movie because there’s so much beauty. That’s partly because of the look we’ve been discussing, but it’s also because of the relationships between the people: There’s a lot of love and kindness there. So I’m wondering how you thought about this as you were putting it together. Did you think of it as a story about individuals, or about relationships between people, or about the relationships between people and the forces that shape their lives?
All of the above. [laughs] All of the above and me. And music.

I didn’t set out to talk about an issue. I really like the idea of how, as we grow up, we have a certain mythology about our families that we build in our heads. We hear broken stories and we know certain things and we kind of make it all up. And then we take these stories on ourselves, like Benny says, ”I was in jail for 100 years.” He doesn’t really know what jail is, but he knows his father was there and he knows it was terrible. So he says he was there, and he comes up with this whole story about how it was terrible and how it had scorpions in it and no TV and they killed kids.

I wanted to capture how we all live with half-broken, half self-invented mythologies that we carry from our pasts and our parents and our countries, and how it leaves room for the imagination, because it is so broken. That place, the Salton Sea, has such a past, and I come from a country that had such a promise and turned into such a violence place.

I grew up in a place that had a lot of beauty in it and a lot of togetherness, and at the same time a lot of violence, a lot of conflict. I didn’t really care when I was a kid, but as you grow up you realize how much it was the backdrop for everything. I think that’s the same thing with this place: the reality of the American dream and its promise. What happened to it?

You used composition and framing really nicely to make points you never spell out. Like the California girl poster that looks so out of place in a bar, or the dead fish in the foreground of shots that are about something else altogether.
One of the things that really drew me to this place is that I felt like the environment and the decay and the cultural references tell such a story that you don’t need to say anything. And I love that, because when I live my life and I go to new places, there isn’t a freaking narrator telling me what to think about everything and explaining every little thing to me.

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