The rusting relic of a failed 1960s development boom, the Salton Sea is a barren California landscape and symbol of the failure of the American Dream. Using a stylized amalgam of nonfiction and choreographed dance set to the music of Beirut and Bob Dylan, “Bombay Beach” revisits this poetically fruitful terrain to find a motley cast including a bipolar seven-year-old, a lovelorn football star, and an octogenarian poet-prophet—creating a moving, distinctive, and slightly surreal documentary experience. [Synopsis courtesy of The Tribeca Film Festival]
World Documentary Competition
Primary Cast: Benny Parrish, Pamela Parrish, Mike Parrish, Doran “Red” Furgie, Cedric Thompson
Director(s): Alma Har’el
Producer(s): Boaz Yakin, Alma Har’el
Editor: Joe Lindquist
Director of Photography: Alma Har’el
Supervising Sound Editor: Dror Mohar
Sound Designer: Dror Mohar
Choreography: Paula Present
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Tribeca Narrative, Documentary and Viewpoints sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]
Responses courtesy of “Bombay Beach” director Alma Har’el:
A less lonely way of dreaming…
I’m not sure. I like to dream at night and always hated waking up in the morning, so the obvious thing that comes to mind is that making films is a less lonely way of dreaming. You meet new people all the time. I also like it that you need to engage in so many different activities–come up with creative ideas, spend time outside shooting, use cameras, be technical, be spiritual, sit in the editing room and eat junkfood… It’s perfect. Nothing is missing. When I go on a film set and see grown up men and women working HARD together to “make believe” and “tell a story” it makes me want to stay alive. I mean they’re crazy, right? Bombay Beach is a documentary but the subjects in it were my collaborators and we worked together to tell their story. Now they’re filmmakers too.
A huge abandoned playground…
I first stumbled upon Bombay Beach with my friend Brian Perkins, who took me out there when I was scouting locations for a music video with the band Beirut. The video was for their song “Concubine,” and while I was shooting it I knew I wanted to come back and make a full-length documentary there. At first I was taken by the sheer uncanniness of Bombay Beach: a gridded run-down town on the shores of a drying-out sea in the middle of a desert! Then I realized that with its rusted bus skeletons, eroding 50’s signs and shoals of dead fish, this post-apocalyptic paradise resembled, more than anything, a huge abandoned playground. I saw the kids playing there, and then I got to know them. At that point, like them, I wasn’t familiar with the history of the Salton Sea and so I got to experience it along with them.
It reminded me of the experience I had growing up in Israel, oblivious to the conflicts that informed it and yet thrust into a life that calls to embrace the violence with the love, the sorrow with the joy —and balance them together. The people in the Middle East 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 injustice, violence and love at the same time. That also typified my personal family life. This type of feeling, of being thrust into quirky, scary, unexpected, macabre and celebratory core of life, was what I tried to capture in this movie. I tried to take part in the Bombay Beach life, with its spiraling play of oppositions. This is also the motor that informed the “non-orthodox” measures I took, like combining dance into the film for example.
“There are one or two moments in the film that make me forget that the song was written a long time before the film…”
I filmed alone using very small equipment that allowed me to get intimate with the people. I moved to Indio, CA for about 4-5 months and filmed as much as I could. After I discovered who my main characters were we started the editing process and then for the rest of the year I would go back between editing and filming. The decision to incorporate dance into the film was because in dancing there is something telling about people’s souls and about dynamics that are forever non-verbal. I worked with Paula Present who is a very gifted choreographer. She was able to connect with all the people and work with the limitations of them being non-dancers, as if they were an advantage to our benefit, which is how I felt about it. The dance comes out of the scenes and it’s as seamless as possible.
The thing I feel most lucky about is having Zach Condon (Beirut) and Bob Dylan’s music as the soundtrack for the film. Nothing could have helped me more to capture all those oppositions in the film and to pull off the dance element. There are one or two moments in the film that make me forget that the song was written a long time before the film because it fits so well with the characters and what I was trying to do. They’ve been an inspiration to me for so long, I still feel so excited every time I hear their music in the film.
Filmmakers vs. Highway…
Oh you know… the usual. No money, no one would take a chance on it. If it wasn’t for Boaz Yakin who ended up producing it , it would have never happened. Once I figured out how to shoot it by myself and he backed it up, I was in my car learning how to drive on the freeway and I never looked back. I never had a driving license or drove a car in Israel so Bombay Beach was the best incentive to getting me on the road. I guess that was the biggest challange actually, the I-10 highway.
Just another quaint little bed and breakfast…
Something happened almost every day that made me shake my head or laugh or hurt inside. My favorite thing though was when I decided to rent a little room in the Bombay Beach bed and have breakfast. My camera would start melting in the middle of the day, so in July and August I had to hide for a few hours between 12 – 3. I was standing there in the sun talking to this really sweet older lady about how much it would be to rent a room and she asked me: “Well, what are you doing here?” I said “well, I’m shooting a little film.” “Oh she said,” “You’re a filmmaker, huh? Great. I just had a few filmmakers staying here. They shot a Horror Porn. It took me 3 days to clean all the blood.” It made me laugh for days.
Future challenges on the horizon…
Up next? A narrative feature and peace in the Middle East. Whatever comes first.