On the Beach: Alma Har’el by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Anya Jaremko-Greenwold talks with Israeli director Alma Har’el about Bombay Beach, a film heralded by the Tribeca Film Festival as the Best Feature Documentary of 2011. Har’el illuminates the process of her film’s creation and its implications for the people of Bombay Beach.

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Still from Bombay Beach. Courtesy of Alma Har’el.

Bombay Beach, the first film of Israeli director Alma Har’el, documents the experiences of those people living on Bombay Beach, an abandoned resort town and now-desolate community on the edge of the Salton Sea, California’s largest (man-made) lake. Dwelling in this small desert neighborhood are a variety of low-income families, mostly down on their luck or floundering, but all of them with their own ambitions, jokes, and zest for life. Har’el films the animal carcasses that lie scattered upon the unforgiving desert floor, the broken-down signs still left standing from the fifties, the dirty living rooms and kitchens of the homes standing there; but she also catches the lovely sunsets that sink over the sea, and the delicate, darkened silhouettes of the locals who enjoy them. Three characters are focused upon: Benny Parrish, a sweet little boy whose adolescent behavior problems have led him to be prescribed dangerously high doses of Ritalin and Lithium, drugs with side effects his mother cannot understand; Ceejay Thompson, a black teenager from L.A. who aspires to be a football player and break free from the tradition of wasted lives and violence in his own family; and Red, a wizened old man who heartily drinks, smokes and basks in the relaxing glow of his remaining years. Using a combination of straight documentary techniques and choreographed, dreamlike dance numbers, Har’el paints the portrait of Bombay Beach and its inhabitants, the interspersed narratives of the three males at various stages of life weaving in and out of one another. I spoke to Har’el about her unique methods of filmmaking and the strong bonds she formed with the subjects of her project.

Anya Jaremko-Greenwold I read that you both directed and shot the entire film yourself. Was there a crew besides you doing sound or producing, or were you completely alone?

Alma Har’el Yeah I was completely alone! I was doing both the sound and the camerawork, and I was producing too. I moved to Bombay Beach, so I was doing it without too much planning or scheduling. I was kind of just hanging out with everybody.

AJG Did you go to Bombay Beach alone to film so the people would trust you and open up to your camera more?

AH No, it was because nobody was giving me the damn money to have a crew! (laughter)

AJG So it was out of necessity.

AH Definitely. I tried to have a DP. I actually had one, there are a few scenes in the film that are shot by Matthias Koenigswieser, who is credited as additional cinematographer. He was there for a few days, but he couldn’t stay because I had no money to pay him, so I picked it up and did it myself. It was the first time I ever shot anything, but I’m really happy I did it. I think it created something special in the end, because of the intimacy it allowed. But it’s not something I planned.

AJG This film is technically a documentary, but not in the conventional sense. You did not allow the fact that you were making a documentary instead of a fiction piece to limit your creativity. Why did you decide to manipulate the people and places you filmed and use improv, or set-ups, or choreographed dance sequences instead of simply filming what happened in Bombay Beach with no interference?

AH I think the word “manipulated” sounds negative. I don’t think I manipulated them, I think I created something together with them, that is hopefully something they’re proud of too … I know they are. My intention wasn’t to hide myself. Some filmmakers in documentaries put themselves in the documentary, show themselves, and they kind of approach it as a journalist or an entertainer. Like Michael Moore, he just puts himself in the scenes. I suppose that is not really manipulative because you know what he’s doing. But to me, what was interesting to do, was put myself in the film as the filmmaker. You don’t see me on the screen and you don’t see me running around. But you have my presence. And the reason it’s still a documentary, is because its documenting not only these people’s lives, but also their meeting and collaboration with me, and my life, and how I see the world, and what I romanticize, and my love for music and dance and movement and all those things. So the movie is a documentary about all of us. We met, and we did it together. The people in Bombay Beach weren’t just my subjects, they were my collaborators. In the things that we did, we explored their lives. It wasn’t scripted.

AJG You said the people you filmed are proud of how they were portrayed. Did they see the film and how did they react?

AH Of course they saw the film. Benny and Pamela [Benny’s mother] were with me in New York in Tribeca when the film premiered. They saw the film and they ate popcorn while they watched it. They loved it. They had never been outside of Bombay Beach before that. It was a real celebration for all of us. We met very randomly; I went there for a location scout for a music video and I met them at the beach, and we immediately connected and just starting filming this music video together. And when we finished, I said “Hey, what’s your name? I really like you. I want to come back here and film you again.”

AJG And they agreed right away? They had no qualms about it?

AH They agreed right away. The first time Pamela saw the music video she cried, she loved it so much. And she had obviously never been a part of anything like that before. So I think they were happy to have that in their lives. In the process of doing this film, no one knew what it would be, because it’s my first film, and I was there alone. None of us expected it would have this success. When the DVD comes out, I will have three shorts, each of them about where the characters are today, and I filmed them all watching the movie for the first time. So you can see how they reacted, and they all love it. I’m still in touch with them, and I go visit a lot. And after Tribeca, we were very lucky because a family we met wanted to help Benny; we took him to a specialist in L.A. and now he’s off all the medications that he was on in the film.

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Still from Bombay Beach. Courtesy of Alma Har’el.

AJG That’s wonderful. So your film really helped his family.

AH Yeah. But they really helped me. They helped me do something beautiful that has changed my life. So we helped each other. And Ceejay got a full scholarship to Minnesota University, and he’s studying and doing well. And Red is … good old Red, as they say. He’s smoking, drinking, and hanging out with the ladies. And he’s actually right now building solar panels on his car, so he can have electricity in his van. He’s cool.

AJG He’s a survivor, such a tough guy.

AH He really is, man. They don’t make them like that anymore.

AJG You’ve said there was quite a bit of “improv.” Did the characters themselves come up with all the dialogue, or did you give them leads and suggestions as to what to talk about?

AH I never told them what to say, no. But I did sometimes create situations. I’ll give you an example: there’s one scene where Pamela and her daughter sit on a swing and she’s telling her about how she got pregnant when she was 15. For a while, I knew Pamela was worried about the fact that Sarah is growing up, and she might start to see boys at some point. I said to Pamela, why don’t we go film you talking to Sarah about that stuff, about how children come into the world, and sex. And they went and sat and starting talking in their own words. And suddenly Pamela told her she got pregnant at 15, which she had never told her daughter before, and she had never told me until then. She never told Sarah she hadn’t finished school, either. All this stuff was coming out. That was my purpose, to create situations that would capture something of the beauty of those places, and let life pour into it. I could never come up with this stuff; it wouldn’t feel so real if it were scripted. Another example is when Ceejay goes to a bar with his friend. I wanted to go to the bar, because they go there sometimes, and I wanted to film them there. When we got there, Brian, who sits there everyday and is a hardcore alcoholic, is outside on the ground, and Ceejay went outside and started talking to him.

AJG Oh right, Brian is the guy who was in a fight and he’s hurt.

AH Yeah, he just lies there on the ground, and says some pretty hard stuff. They tell him if he doesn’t go to the hospital he’s gonna die, and he says, “Thank God.” That’s such a hard moment, it shows such desperation of the people that live there. And I could never write that or set that up. All I did was suggest we go to this bar and film there, and create something around it. The way it goes between reality and a more cinematic set-up. It brings to the screen two things: it brings the reality and the subjects, but it also brings me as a filmmaker and the aesthetic and music I wanted the film to have, which some people find is against the authenticity of the subjects, but it’s not against my authenticity.

AJG Do you think people will truly reveal themselves on camera, and be truthful, when they are aware they’re being filmed? Or might they put on a front, even unconsciously, behave themselves better because they know they have an audience?

AH I think people always put up a front when there’s a camera. But, I think in this day and age, with so many reality shows, people are very used to this. And there was a certain understanding of what I was trying to do. Nobody in this world is naïve anymore; we all have television and we know how reality shows work. It’s up to the director in the editing room to choose the scenes that tell something about the essence of the person, or the story. I have 160 hours of film; of course some of them are much more played for the camera. But I feel the moments that I chose, even if they had a front, tells something about the people. And sometimes the choice that a person makes, to put on a certain front, tells more about him than if you would just catch him off-guard. The choices we make and the persona we put out to the world also says something about what’s important to us, what’s our ideal self. And that is just as valid to me. I don’t believe anyone is 100% authentic all the time. I don’t care about that stuff. When people pretend to be so purist and have these ethics about documentaries, it’s like, who are you kidding? Nobody is like that in real life, even, so I don’t know what you’re trying to capture.

AJG That’s very true. Though you do have a lot of children in the movie, and I do think kids, of all people, have this very unselfconscious behavior even in front of the camera.

AH I totally agree. But sometimes the hardest thing to film was the children!

AJG Why is that?

AH I always wanted them to feel like they were part of something. That we were doing it together. There’s that scene with Benny and the young girls in the kitchen, where they tell him he has no “class,” and make fun of him, which is a very painful moment for me to watch. It almost made me want to take the camera down and tell them to back off. A lot of us have been exposed to cruelty as children, and we know how they bring to school all the pain they carry from their homes and throw it on each other. So that was a really pure and real, fly-on-the-wall documentary moment. But to me what was really interesting was to take that and explore things kids don’t necessarily understand about that moment, together with them. And that’s what I tried to do in the dance that followed. I explained to them: this dance will be about how you shut Benny out, and how you don’t want to play with him. And we’ll call it the Benny Dance. Benny will show us all the movements that he does when he’s angry at the other kids. And my choreographer basically took all of these movements and made it into a phrase, and then we taught it to the other kids. So Benny is sort of teaching the other kids his dance of anger. Things like that bring to the surface such unspoken feelings and experiences. So we explored these moments that are very realistic and verbal, with stuff that is more internal and artistic and dreamy.

AJG Can you film people like this, in extreme states of poverty, and resist comforting them, helping them, or interfering? How easy is it to be only an uninterfering spectator?

AH I don’t see myself as somebody who has any codes regarding this stuff … I was never removed. I was always comforting them, and talking to them. I still am in their lives and they’re still in mine. So it wasn’t like that. I wasn’t just there to film and not talk to them because it would endanger my truth as a journalist covering poverty or something. If people are looking to see the news they can put on the news, or they can open a history book and read about how the Salton Sea came about. But this is not what my movie is. It’s a cinematic film that’s a result of a connection between people, not between a news reporter and a dry subject. When you get involved as a filmmaker, things get gray. It’s not all black and white. And I care only about the gray, anyway. This is where I exist, and where I want to make films.

AJG The ending of the film is very powerful, when the fire truck comes and Benny gets dressed up as a fireman, wearing a fake mustache, and gets to be what he always wanted to be when he grows up. Did you ask the truck to come for Benny, and set that whole thing up?

AH What do you think?

AJG I think probably, yes.

AH I hope you think so!

AJG What does this ending signify? Is it the idea that in fantasizing, we have hope, that in escaping into our imaginations and daydreams, we can find comfort and even a sense of freedom?

AH You know, I’m not that verbal when I do things! I don’t say, let’s do this sequence, it will really symbolize this and signify that. I don’t think that way. I was always passing by that truck with Benny, and we always thought it was the coolest thing in Bombay Beach. And I had to meet the guy who ran the fire department to get all these permits. And I asked him if we could use the fire truck for a dance sequence, and he said yes. And I put the whole thing together because I thought Benny would be really happy if we did that. Before we did the dance I thought about his fantasy of being a fireman. But afterwards watching it, I thought about how he as a kid has to put out so many fires that are handed to him; his parents’ history, the poverty he was born into, his chemical imbalance, his medications, the love for weapons that his parents grew up with. All those things, all those fires. And when he was putting out the fire, it was like a dream. Only after I saw it did I analyze it this way. I had never planned it to be the ending of the film, and only in the editing room did it really feel to me like it’s saying something very conclusive about him and everyone. And that’s kind of how I did this whole film; I’m spending 6 months now in film festivals explaining myself and trying to verbalize all these really personal things I’ve done intuitively. And it’s hard. I think people expect me to have a lot more reasons for everything, and rational decisions behind everything. And I just don’t. I don’t want to pretend I do. I didn’t do any of those things with a symbolic, heavy weight on top of my head. I did it because I was inspired by what I was seeing. I loved that truck, I wanted to ride that truck too. I was having the best time of my life that day. Me and my choreographer were sitting on top of it like, “Oh my god this is so fucking cool.” It was just fun. And afterwards I sat in the editing room and did the best I could to make sense of it all. But people shouldn’t look for so much meaning in everything. I mean, they can. But it’s the same thing as going to a psychiatrist and saying, “Hey, what does this dream I had mean?” He can tell you, but that’s just his opinion. Some things are unspoken.

AJG You claim you don’t have a lot of answers, but you seem to be incredibly articulate and know exactly what you’re talking about.

AH Because I’ve been talking about it for 6 months in film festivals. You should have heard me 5 months ago!

AJG You’ve come a long way.

AH I really have. But it’s because of all the hard questions people ask me. Out of respect to the people who ask, I’ve been trying to come up with answers. But I don’t want to push it too much, because it starts to feel like I’m lying. People want to know that the film was real. And all I can say to them is … it’s as real as it could be. It’s really what happened. And my experience of making my first film with these beautiful, amazingly open people … what you’re asking from me, actually, is a lie. To come up with reasons and explanations that don’t exist. A lot of it is just very intuitive, and came out of having fun. And making a film together with people. And I know it’s a sensitive subject, because there’s poverty involved and children. But it’s not like I was trying to say anything that would hurt them. I think I was trying to celebrate the beauty that they still have in their difficult lives. And to bring to the surface their problems and the broken American dream or whatever you want to call it, that they’re living in. To show that, but not in a way that’s deductive or journalistic and boring. It’s more the way you see the world when you visit somewhere. When you visit a place, you don’t have a narrator standing next to you and explaining every second of everything, telling you how it all started. You just experience things. And that’s what I wanted to do, just experience Bombay Beach through a camera.

Bombay Beach opened Friday, October 14th at the IFC Center. The film was named Best Feature Documentary at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

Anya Jaremko-Greenwold is a film critic based in New York City.

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