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A Special Mention: Alma Har'el

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Winner of the Tribeca World Documentary Award and fresh from Sheffield Doc/Fest with a Special Mention, Alma Har'el, discusses her debut feature set in one of the most neglected communities of California.

Alma Har’el describes making Bombay Beach as "probably the best year of my life" and this joy seeps into every delectable frame of her hybrid documentary, seamlessly blending candid footage with choreographed fantasy sequences that celebrate, rather than condescend to, its subjects. It is also a celebration of cinema itself: “It’s such a great way to explore everything you love. It’s not like when you play an instrument, you have that instrument and focus on it. In film, everything is an instrument.” It is difficult to believe that Har’el’s instrument of choice is a simple handheld camera combined with vintage lenses found online, however she modestly attributes the film’s stunning visuals to the plentiful natural light of the desert.

Har’el discovered Bombay Beach when scouting locations for a music video and was immediately drawn in; "I love ghost towns, I love people that live in the margins of society and I’m attracted to that but I definitely had a different experience of them from film." She set out to contradict the damaging ‘redneck’ stereotype: “When I met the Parrishes, I was struck by their sense of humour, warmth and the romance in their lives. It was really important to me to show that to people. That people are not necessarily what you expect.”

Har’el moved into the community to bond with the residents, allowing her to observe their mannerisms, movements and interactions. These formed the basis for dance sequences which she developed along with choreographer Paula Present: “It was very collaborative, when Ceejay and his girlfriend perform the masked dance, it’s all based on his movements. He dances in the streets and in deserted houses with his friends.”

Ceejay traded L.A. for Bombay Beach after losing a relative in gang violence: ‘He went there to be bored so he could be a better student and get a scholarship. He now has a full scholarship at Nebraska University. How ironic is that? That somebody from Los Angeles would go to Bombay Beach to ‘make it.’ It shows just how twisted the situation is, but in the end he makes it and he goes back into the mythology of the American Dream. It’s such a complex reality.”

Ceejay’s fledgling relationship is especially poignant when contrasted with Red, an aged ex-oil worker, who has nightmares: “They all have to do with his experiences, relationships and fears – to the difference between the races. He grew up in the Dust Bowl era. He’s not a racist per se, he doesn’t believe white people are better than black people but he was raised to believe that mixing races causes identity problems. But more than anything he’s scared of the other.”

This is why her use of dance is not only refreshing but a masterstroke. She succeeds in avoiding casting her subjects as the observed ‘other’ by entirely sidestepping the interrogative and often hierarchizing nature of language in documentary. With dance, “you have to step out of the way you usually get your information about people and life. You suddenly have to stop thinking and analysing.’

Benny, the youngest of the Parrish family who during the course of the film is diagnosed bi-polar, seems to benefit most from this creative outlet: “For Benny it was just to feel more legitimate as a person. To be embraced and told that he is interesting was very good for him. And for the Parrishes it was a matter of stepping out of a life of fear and suddenly feeling they are subjects and not just objects.”

Har’el’s documentary explodes the notion that the aesthetically pleasing need be divorced from the socially progressive. Her description of Zach Condon’s soundtrack could equally be applied to her work: “It’s such an incredible description of life, that mood of loneliness and sadness combined with magical joy and appreciation of things.”

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