The director discusses her multi-award-winning docu-drama about the inhabitants of a '50s-era tourist resort that now lies in decay.
2 Apr 2012 - 4:39 PM  UPDATED 2 Apr 2012 - 4:39 PM

Bombay Beach is situated on the Southern Californian Sonoran Desert, on the banks of the Salton Sea. The area was once earmarked as a beachfront centre of prosperity, but now exists as a potent symbol of the unrealised 'American Dream'. Israeli director Alma Har'el's lens captures a world that is at once hopeful and desparate. Bombay Beach is a film of bold choices made without attention to category, and a fluid and evocative portrait of characters and their landscape. It's neither pure documentary nor narrative film.

In what is perhaps the most defining characteristic of the film, Har'el incorporates choreography inspired by the characters' own experiences. Dance provides a parallel narrative, an alternative language for expression for Benny, Cee-Jay and Red. The director worked with choreographer Paula Present, and used music from Zach Condon of the band Beirut, and songs by Bob Dylan.

Har'el says that her first feature was “a process of discovery” inspired by a sense of movement and a deep interest in the people filmed. “I didn't make a lot of decisions beforehand,” she admits. “I did ask them not to look into the camera. I knew I didn't want any talking heads and even when I recorded interviews, I did it in a way that [meant] I could only use the sound. I did decide to spend as much time as possible with them and to get to know them, to get some insight into their lives and to feel more comfortable with them.”

Har'el presents a triptych of the American male: Benny, a young boy of boundless energy and exuberance, diagnosed as bi-polar and medicated to ensure he can attend school; college hopeful Cee-Jay, who travelled to Bombay Beach from South Central Los Angeles to save his life and create a pathway for his future; and Red, a lone survivor who strives for a few extra dollars selling cigarettes from his trailer.

In one scene, Benny is excluded from the children's plans. The scene unfolds, first in observed dialogue and then in dance. “I was watching the whole scene as it [was] unveiled,” says Har'el. “It was so cruel and hard to watch but at the same time it was obvious that girls carry a lot of their own problems and own pain; definitions of wealth and class and all the things they were blaming Benny for not having. I wanted to take that dynamic and the whole story of them going on a date and leaving him out of it. I then acted it out through movement.”

Har'el also drew from personal experience to understand the rejection of Benny by his peers. “I myself as a kid had a lot of encounters. I was in constant fights at school and for a lot of years felt very oppressed. It was something that I wanted to look into, together with the children.”

Finding balance between the contrasting elements of the film and the characters proved the key to the editing. “I had 160 hours [of footage] so it was really a matter of finding afterwards, in the editing room, how to tell the story and make the film interesting and incorporate the dance into it.

“[It was a matter of] figuring out how to do it in a way that keeps each character balanced with the other characters, and to make sure dance is present but that it doesn't take over the whole film. One thing I care about in general is movement. For me, everything has to have a sense of movement in it. That includes the editing. It's about finding the rhythm in every gesture that people do.”

Har'el insists that her process is largely intuitive. She edited Bombay Beach over the course of many months with first-time feature editor Joe Lindquist. “After I had lived there for four or five months I came back to L.A. and we started to edit it,” she explains. “We edited it for about six, seven months. During that time I would go back and forth every few weeks to Bombay Beach to follow up on the story or to film a dance sequence. It was a case of making the film while I was editing it.”

The director attributes her unique perspective, in part, to her position as an outsider and what she calls “a healthy sense of freedom”.

“In my country, if I were to make a film, I would be so invested in certain things and carry so much pain about other things,” Har'el says. “It's hard for me to imagine myself making a film in Israel. I don't know how I'd do it. It's so charged. [In the States] it has been a more empathetic and forgiving process to make a film. Maybe that's because I don't feel like I carry a heavy load of blame or guilt about certain things in society – as I much as I do over there. In that regard, it was liberating.”

Bombay Beach screens as part of ACMI's First Look program for four nights only from Friday 6 to Monday 9 April 2012. See the website for details.