With close to four hundred films screened at the Berlin Film Festival each year, at least one thing is certain: Berlinale aspires to please filmgoers of all stripes and colors. One film that made a significant blip on our radar in 2011 is Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach, which premiered in the Panorama Dokumente sidebar. The aptly titled documentary follows three inhabitants of Bombay Beach (located on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea in Southern California): Benny, a young man with bipolar disorder; CeeJay, a black teen taking refuge in the area after fleeing the gang culture of Los Angeles; and Red, who once worked in the oil fields and now survives on a toxic diet of booze and cigarettes.
Certainly, the film is anchored in a region hitherto most outsiders have the remotest knowledge about. In broad strokes, Bombay Beach was once a popular destination during the 1950’s, attracting the likes of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and Jeff Lewis. However, the lack of outflow and increased salinity in the sea led to its eventual decline and abandonment over the years.
Despite Bombay Beach knowingly capturing the misery and abject poverty that cripples the area’s some one hundred inhabitants, it’s also a special kind of film limning the boundary between the real and the constructed with documentary footage punctuated by entirely staged, choreographed sequences in which Har’el’s subjects dance—to original music composed by Beirut’s Zach Condon and several tracks pulled from Bob Dylan’s back catalog.
Anthem pulled Har’el aside on the eve of Bombay Beach’s world premiere at Berlinale for an interview and a photo shoot.
If you’re in Berlinale right now, be sure to check out one of two remaining screenings of Bombay Beach at CineStar 7 on 2/17 and 2/18. Here’s the trailer for some inspiration!
How’s Berlinale treating you so far? Are you having fun?
The festival is absolutely more fun than anyone could ever imagine. On top of the fact that everybody is extremely accommodating and love cinema, they keep serving us some of the best food that I’d ever eaten—and I’m always hungry. I think it has to do with the fact that Dieter Kosslick [director of Berlinale] loves food so much and is part of the Slow Food movement. At the opening ceremony they had five floors, each floor with its own Michelin chef, and we kept wandering between the floors. I think I had five different desserts.
Have you been able to pull away from the festival at all to explore the city?
No. Whenever I have a free minute, I take a nap standing up. So far, it’s been pretty hectic.
Bombay Beach was included in the Panorama Dokumente section this year. Could you describe what that is to people who might not know much about it?
Panorama is part of the official program, but out of the main competition. From what I understand, it’s meant to present new works by famous directors and debut films from new directors—I obviously fall in the second category. Overall, it tries to present a scope of international work that seem to define this year’s Art House movement and close the gap between art and commercial films. Forum represents the purest art house section.
In your own words, how would you describe Bombay Beach? It’s not a documentary in a traditional sense.
I guess it’s not a movie that really concerns itself with being one thing or another. It consists of the stories of three individuals who live in one of the most surreal places in America. The place is called Bombay Beach, which is located on the shores of the Salton Sea, a long forgotten lake in the middle of a desert. It was considered the hottest vacation spot in the 50s; people like Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis had houses there—and speedboats. Now, the lake is a pool of dead fish and the resort is a ghost town.
I suppose the film is about a lot of things like the broken American Dream, love and community, but mostly, it’s about the contradictions that can coexist in these people’s lives. Things like hope and despair, life and death, which—when observed together without judgment—can be recognized as beauty. Stylistically, what makes this film stand out is that it has a lot of dance sequences with music, and the fact that it wasn’t shot like a documentary; people never look at the camera except in one instance for just a brief second.
What was your first encounter with Bombay Beach like?
I first stumbled on Bombay Beach with my friend, Brian Perkins, who took me out there when I was scouting locations for a music video with Beirut. The video was for their song called “Concubine” and while I shooting it, I knew I wanted to come back and make a full-length movie there. It reminded me of a place that I lived in for a few years in Israel called Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev Desert, a place that makes you feel as though civilization is over or just beginning again after some horrible apocalypse.
I find Bombay Beach to be both tragic and beautiful in surreal ways that are hard to capture, and that’s why I found it captivating.
It’s really out of the way and yet photographers drive a long way every evening to take photos of the majestic sunsets and the decaying signs. But they have no clue as to who actually lives there. And the people who live there, in turn, have no clue as to why these photographers are taking photos of this place, which they are very much stuck in. I became really intrigued by these people. It eventually became clear to me that Bombay Beach is a place where reality and dreams are both not what you expect.
How did you find Benny, CeeJay, and Red?
The Parrishes [Benny’s family] were my first partners in crime. After that, I returned one day and walked the empty streets just looking for people. That’s how I met CeeJay; he was just hanging out with his two buddies. I went back to L.A. and pitched the idea to companies. About eight or nine were interested, but they all fell through and no one wanted to put the money up to make the movie. So, I just decided to move there for four months with a small camera and minimal sound equipment, and I shot it myself. While I was there, I met this hitchhiker who lived in Slab City and filmed him for about a week. That was when he told me about Red and introduced me to him. Once I started filming Red, he slowly became the narrator of the film.
Tell me about growing up in Israel and how you think that might have informed your creativity at an early age.
My grandparents from both sides of my family moved to Israel from Poland during World War II. All of their brothers and sister who stayed behind died in the camps. My grandmother had seven brothers and sisters, but in Israel, we had almost no family. It was the same on my father’s side. My parents were both born in Tel Aviv and so was my brother, sister, and myself. Israel is a melting pot for Jews from all over the world; they hail from Russia, Poland, Germany, Egypt, Syria, Bulgaria, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Morocco—you name it we’ve got it. Add to that the mid-east mayhem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and you have quite a situation on your hands. And yet, the people there all mix and fight and love and have kids. So, I think that’s pretty much the inspiration; the ability to mix things up and learn how to live with violence and love at the same time. That also typified my personal family life.
Did you always want to become a filmmaker?
I don’t really know what I was into when I was little. I think it was theater, acting, and then dance—and then boys and television. I directed and hosted a show on the National Geographic channel, then traveled, did photography, video art, editing, and finally got into music videos. Now, having completed a documentary, I think I’m going to either write a script and direct it, or maybe move to the Salton Sea and swim with the dead fish next—one of the two. They seem equally fun right now.
As a foreigner touching on the subject of the American Dream, what is your personal take on it? What is the “American Dream”?
I think it used to be about being free and striving for justice and equality for all. The dream then sort of morphed into the idea of owning a house and a car. Now, it’s no longer clear if any of those things are possible. I moved to America four or five years ago to be with my husband, and I had a lot of qualms about capitalism and America in general. Then I started to take a better look at myself and at the parts of the America-created reality that I enjoyed, while at the same time, criticizing it. It’s very complex, to really get to know America and not just see it as the creator of capitalism and popcorn entertainment.
The state of America now is fascinating. You see how the dream not just broke, but turned into a twisted fantasy that feeds all sorts of astonishing and symbolic situations. You can really discover the humanity of the people. To think that a teenager from Los Angeles would move to Bombay Beach to “make it” says a lot about how complex it is. The fact that the Parrishes’ obsession with the American flag, the army, and weapons got them into jail was another strong metaphor. And, of course, Red, who’s full of American “wisdom” in the most earnest way; he’s the Marlboro Man who never got cancer and instead became a “lucky cuss” to use his own words. He appreciates the real pleasures of life while living under the shadow of his own handed-down racism.
How did the choreographed dance sequences get worked into the film, which were entirely staged?
That was one of the most fun parts about making this film, but it also took a while to explain and get people onboard to do it. It was a long process. Those sequences are worked into the film a very organic way; each dance explores a certain scene or comments on a character through dance. When I met with my subjects, it was one of the first things I told them, so they knew more or less what they were getting themselves into. As crazy as it might have sounded, they agreed to do it. I would like to think that I was able to convince them because I’m persuasive, but in reality, I think they agreed to do it out of sheer boredom.
I shot the film for over a year. After a few months of filming, I would review the footage, and if I sensed that a certain scene was going to stay in the movie and felt it would be a scene that I would want to develop into a dance, I brought in the choreographer to work on the dance. They were all shot at different times throughout the year and we rehearsed with all of them except for two. Each dance kind of had its own process, so it’s hard to comment on all of them collectively. One of the dances didn’t make it into the film, but if this film ever goes to DVD, I will add it for that.
Was anyone particularly reprehensive about the idea of dancing for the camera?
I wouldn’t say reprehensive, but some of them were definitely more excited, or more comfortable, than others. I think they were all very happy after seeing the footage though.
The dance sequences make more sense if you consider your background in music videos and commercials. Your video for Beirut’s “Elephant Gun” certainly had a lot of traction on the web. Did that open a lot of doors for you?
The main door it opened for me was my relationship to dance and Zach Condon. Other than that, I think it definitely got me more videos and made it easier for me to get talented people onboard to collaborate with me on future projects. “Elephant Gun” is still my favorite video along with one or two others, but it’s impossible to do something on that scale with the kind of budgets I get. All the musicians I love have no money, and I really can’t work on videos if I don’t like the artists in some way.
Zach Condon provided the score for Bombay Beach. What was that collaborative process like?
We started with Zach making a list of all the songs from his albums that might work in the film. Once I finished editing and used everything I could from his existing archive of music, I went to New Mexico for a week with the finished film and crashed with Zach for a while. We went into the studio every afternoon and worked for a few hours on all the parts that needed new music. We would look at a particular scene, talk about what could work, and Zach would play tracks for me or write something new on the spot, which we recorded right then and there. Needless to say, I was like an excited fan throughout the whole process. We also drove to his parent’s house in Santa Fe where he grew up and recorded a new version of “Scenic World” on one of the old organs he has there. It was an unforgettable week for me. I’m such a dorky fan when it comes to Zach even after all of these years of working together.
Was it difficult to get the rights for Bob Dylan’s songs in the film?
I dealt with Jess Rosen, Bob Dylan’s manager. I flew to New York three different times during the process of acquiring his music. First, I showed him a lot of photos and a few edited sequences. When he told me that Bob would probably give me the songs, I went through the whole catalog for a week and found the three songs I wanted. Then I flew out there two more times to show him the final film. The last time I was there, it was clear to me that he loved it and it would all work out.