“Life is nothing but a habit anyway,” says Red, a wizened ex-oil field worker, waiting out the long fade in a sun-baked trailer with his smokes and whiskey. This is the sort of elegiac dialogue at the heart of Bombay Beach, a poetically shot, atmospheric film (winner of Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival) that tells the story of a burnt out husk of an art deco resort town, now on the fringe of Southern California’s fetid Salton Sea.
It all sounds a bit melancholic, but Israeli director Alma Har’el manages to bring a profound dignity to poverty, showing that the American Dream still lingers in unexpected places. The film tracks the lives of three characters in various stages of manhood: philosophical Red; CeeJay, a high-school senior with dreams of a college football scholarship; and bi-polar Benny, all scrappy kneed and imaginative, not unlike Max in Where the Wild Things Are.
Har’el’s debut not only captures a zeitgeisty look at current economic woes but does so in a fresh, light-handed way — largely because the former music-video director breaks with realism and weaves in choreographed dance sequences set to Bob Dylan and Beirut, as if to say “When life gets tough, keep dancing.”
Tell me how you went from filming music videos at Coachella to making your first feature film. Yes, two years ago I was at Coachella with the band Beirut and we were scouting locations for “Concubine.” We found Bombay Beach by happenstance and I was hooked right away. When I’m doing music videos, I’m building a whole world around just one song, but at the end of the day I wasn’t exploring a lot of things that I care about. I wanted to do something with a little more meaning to it.
What drew you to the characters? I hung out and filmed a lot of people in the beginning. I did all the camera work and sound by myself, and after a month or two it was becoming clear who was interesting and who was open to the whole process — because I needed to make sure they would be willing to dance.
From the moment I got [to Bombay Beach], I felt a certain clarity that allowed me to really see the people and hear what they say. The backdrop of the place, which is both tragic and dreamy, gave that dialogue another meaning because it was framed with where they are compared to the rest of society.
The dialogue is pretty minimal, but a lot of it is poignant, even lyrical at times. Was there a method to this? It was boiling hot in the desert, so I ended up renting a little room in the only bed & breakfast in Bombay Beach so I could hide there from the sun in the afternoons. The first day I came there, this woman came out and I said, “Hi, I’m looking to rent a room here, I’m here to make a film.” And she said, “Oh that’s funny, the guys that were before you, they did a horror porn here this past weekend.” A horror porn? I’d never heard of that!
Anyway, I ended up renting one of those rooms and I would do my voiceover interviews there. Sometimes I would take Benny with me and ask him to tell me stories. One day I said, “Do you want to tell me something?” And he said, “Yeah, I want to tell you something that’s really important. I was in jail for 100 years.”
That’s the quote on your movie poster. It must have resonated with you. Benny is young. He’s heard that his parents have been in jail, but he doesn’t really know what jail is, he just knows that it’s a terrible place. So he’s taken on a mythology that he’s built in his head, which I think we all do as children. Until we grow up and get perspective, we build an almost romantic mythology of our families, and then we take it on ourselves to shape and color our own reality. Usually it’s a lot more imaginative and colorful, or mysterious and weird, because we can’t really understand it.
I think Bombay Beach is like that too; it has a past that was glamorous in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s—and now it’s a ghost town that’s morbid with dead fish. There are still people living there and life goes on. For them, it’s their world. And that probably feels like jail sometimes, because they’re stuck there.
And what about visuals? The film is like a coffee table book come to life. It’s up to you as a director to find moments that you think capture something of your characters that fit your tastes, and what do you feel is interesting and real. I was also very much into the dynamics that I found to be very surreal in that place. For example, when Benny and his mom are standing in front of the mirror and he puts on a pink wig and says, “I’m a girl,” and continues to be a girl all through that walk, I never saw that coming. When he plays out that character, he always brings some insight about himself into it. And I felt like that was such a fascinating way to get to know somebody. I was definitely looking for those creative moments in people’s lives where they are being creative, not for an audience, but for their own pursuit of themselves and what’s beautiful in life—the theater of life.
Some purists think you are pushing the line of documentary filmmaking; that you’re telling only a partial truth when you stage shots or give props to your characters. I would love to push the genre even further, actually. A lot people feel offended, like I’m hurting the authenticity of my characters. But I feel like the truth is such a used up word. I think that in this film, I definitely captured some very essential truths about these characters, but I also captured my truth, and what I love about life. If someone else had been filming, she would probably see a different truth. I brought my interests, my mythology as a child, the romance that I put into dysfunction.
Who is to say that art isn’t truth? That’s such a boring way of looking at filmmaking; it’s like saying to a painter that he can’t mix these two colors because they don’t go together. ￼
Bombay Beach opens in NY on October 14th and in LA October 21st.
Stills: Alex Hulsey