Is it still a documentary once you make your subjects dance?
Alma Har’el’s first feature film is a documentary with a difference. Bombay Beach explores three lives – the troubled boy Benny, hopeful football star Ceejay, and the eccentric, elderly Red – against the striking backdrop of a tiny town beside California’s inland sea. Borrowing techniques from her acclaimed music videos, Har’el introduces surreal dance sequences into the movie that make it feel like a waking dream.
Bombay Beach seems like a place that can’t be real, like the set to an abandoned old movie. What struck you when you first saw it?
Well, I’m from Israel, so I love the desert. The more dead it is, the more alive I am! I was in Coachella for the music festival, looking for locations for a music video for Beirut. You drive for a while, maybe an hour, and suddenly you see this sea – I don’t think you can understand how big it is – in the middle of the desert. The way the light reflects on it is beautiful, but then you drive closer and at a certain point you see all the dead fish and everything else on the shore. I was very struck by that contrast. The incredible beauty, and at the same time, the desolation and neglect.
How did you explain to your subjects that you wanted them to dance in the film?
It was a process, but the first thing I said was the simplest thing you can imagine: “We’re going to make a film together. What are you doing today? I want to film it.” People keep asking about it, and I try to be as clear as I can. I showed them music videos that I’d done and that definitely gave them a frame of reference. There was a lot of discussion about being honest. They had to feel like they could be honest with me, and I had to keep coming back and saying: “I am interested in you just the way you are. I am interested in whatever it is that happens, because it happened.” It was always a matter of coming back to that: “What are we trying to do here together? It’s this incredible thing, this incredible story that is your life.”
But at the same time they had this awareness that it wasn’t a regular documentary. I didn’t want them to look into the camera – that’s something I said from the start. So they were, in many ways, ‘playing themselves’. But everybody does that anyway in a documentary! I find documentaries to be very annoying when people try to pretend none of that stuff is happening.
Were you worried having these choreographed moments would make audiences suspicious of the truthfulness of everything else?
I don’t really care if people think the rest of it is truthful or not. The magic of it is in the different layers. Some of them are choreographed, some of them are completely fly-on-the-wall. Some of them are improvised and some are set up in a certain location but have genuine things happening in them. I never scripted anything, but I would take them and say “let’s film over there”. Those different layers of reality – or whatever you want to call it – make it much more interesting. To me, anyway. It was the opportunity for these people to actually explore, with me, these fantasies we have about each other. How we perceive each other and who we are. These moments are more cinematic versions of life.
How do you see the relationship between style and content, especially in a film like this? Can you separate them or are they inextricably linked?
Hmm. Good question. At the end of the day it’s about how they serve each other, like lyrics and music. What makes a great song is when the lyrics and music have chemistry between them. I think it’s the same with style and content. Obviously there are certain styles that I can’t stand, and certain stories I’m not interested in – but I’ve experienced moments where a style became much more interesting because it fit the content, or a story I’d heard before became fresh again because of its style. So it really all depends on the relationship that develops between the two, and not any preconceived decisions.
There’s obviously a lot of your music videos in Bombay Beach. What lessons will you take from Bombay Beach back to music videos?
I don’t know. I haven’t done another music video yet. I’m not a very strategic person with those kind of things. There was something really special for me about making Bombay Beach, something unique to the place, and I don’t want to exploit that aesthetic. I was offered to make some commercials that would duplicate that look, but obviously I couldn’t say yes. Whatever I do, I hope to be present. And whatever the music or story, I hope to treat it as what it is – and not impose whatever experience I had in Bombay Beach on to other things.
Bombay Beach has its Australian premiere Fri 6 April at ACMI.