Built on the shores of Califonia’s Salton Sea, Bombay Beach has somehow endured long past its 1950s heyday to become a shell of its former self. A ghost town in the poorest county in the State, its residents scratch out bleak existences amidst extreme poverty and unbearable temperatures. Music video director Alma Har’el has made her feature film debut documenting the lives of three of the people who linger in Bombay Beach, whose desperate stories are as oddly inspirational as they are depressing.
Buoyed by a soundtrack from Beirut and Bob Dylan as well as some beautiful dance sequences, Har’el’s film is undeniably powerful, if intellectually troublesome. To mark the film's release, we spoke to Har’el.
What made you want to tell these people’s life stories?
I wanted to make a documentary that had dance sequences in it, but I put it in the back of my head because I couldn’t find people who I thought could really do it. Then I came and saw Bombay Beach for the first time in the middle of shooting a music video with Beirut. I thought the place itself was so haunting and had such a specific mood. I was really curious about who lives there I thought they had to have interesting stories because they live off the grid. It’s so hard to survive there it’s tragic on one hand and yet so freeing. It’s very post-apocalyptic. It’s like this place gave up on society, or society gave up on it. I’m not sure who did that first.
All photos: Stills from Alma Har’el's Bombay Beach.
Considering how fragile the people you were documenting are, did you feel a responsibility to portray them in an accurate manner?
Oh, definitely. I felt a big responsibility to portray them in a way they would feel comfortable with, but at the same time I saw this project as a much more artistic endeavour than purely a documentary, even though it captures how they got pushed away by society into a trap. The town is a great case study of what happen to the weak in society, but it’s a complex situation and the film is more impressionistic than purely political.
I ended up calling it a documentary because it documents the lives of incredibly real people, but the purpose of it was to engage in something that was more artistic, to externalise thoughts that are internal and not necessarily factual. Like with the dance sequences, I was trying to say something that isn’t verbal and have the people in the film express feelings that maybe only dance can portray.
Do you think it expresses a truth about its subjects?
For me the whole concept of truth is something that is so bogus when it comes to film. Documentaries are obviously from the point of view of the filmmaker and they choose what moments to show and they use editing and music to emphasise things. Also, if you’ve ever had a camera directed at you, you end up “playing yourself”, and this is what my subjects were doing in this film. At the same time I think the film reflects how it feels to be around these people and how it feels to be in their lives.
Even though certain scenes were dramatised or you’d give them directions beforehand?
I didn’t script anything, but I created situations that I feel make the film more cinematic or that allowed them to improvise and explore the themes that I wanted to bring out. I also told them never to look into the camera which is a direction which immediately creates an awareness that you’re performing. It is a more controlled environment than the usual documentary but I feel that all of these ideas are more fascinating for film festival programmers than for actual viewers. I don’t know, I think it’s much more interesting to have something cinematic and interesting than just engaging in documenting something. That doesn’t leave a lot of space for me as a filmmaker. I have interests and fantasies and mythologies and tastes and a connection to people and experiences, and I want to explore that too. I’m not a documentarian.
What would you hope that people take away from the film?
I don’t want to impose anything on anyone, but I hope they get a certain insight into a side of America that they don’t know and meet characters that they otherwise wouldn’t meet and just have a cinematic experience that is different from what they usually see.
I think it depends on the person. When you see a film it’s how it echoes with your own history and tastes. It’s up to the chemistry you have. I have this one great fan who saw the film with his girlfriend and wrote to me. He said that after they saw it they separated because he realised they didn’t have real intimacy and that there was something he was missing. He was feeling so many things when he saw the film and didn’t feel like he could share them with her. So that’s something I could have never imagined happening. You never know how someone will experience a film. All you can do is make it. I tried to create this thing about how I feel about this place and these characters. And it has its own life now.
For more information on Bombay Beach, visit the film's website here.