It’s been five years since Alma Har’el’s stunningly beautiful “Bombay Beach” took the best documentary feature award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Shot on consumer digital camera, “Bombay” told stories of people living in one of the poorest communities in Southern California and announced Har’el as one of the most visually inventive directors working in nonfiction. Her new film “LoveTrue,” premiering tonight at Tribeca, examines the nature of, well true love, focusing on three relationships that face very unique challenges in three different locations: Hawaii, Alaska and New York.
As Har’el explains to Indiewire, she is not a filmmaker concerned with convention, nor does she believe there is a binary relationship between fiction and nonfiction filmmaking. In “LoveTrue,” for example, she depicts the past, present and future of her subjects using actors and what she describes as “psychodrama techniques where auxiliary ego play parts in your story.”
In this exchange, Har’el digs deep into her process, her inspiration and her collaboration with executive producer Shia LaBeouf, which made the project possible.
This film is examining the subject of love through a very distinct prism. Creatively and intellectually, what was the starting point for you with this film?
It started with an image. I saw a woman lying in bed at night with her husband and her older self is sitting on a rocking chair and watching them sleep. It was haunting, like a ghost that might fuck with you.
I was going through a separation from my husband and felt like I was negotiating my life with a younger more romantic self and an older person who I’m afraid to become. I wanted to externalize that inner dialogue and to look at love from this perspective. There is a quote by James Baldwin that says, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
I felt I needed to learn more about that kind of love he speaks about together with other people.
Setting and landscape seem to be particularly important to you as storyteller. Did you also “cast” these locations?
I actually decided on the locations before I decided on the people and I see the locations as characters in the film. I wanted to chose three places in America that were as different from each other as possible in terms of landscape.
Since I came to live in America, whenever New York, Hawaii and Alaska would come up in a conversation people would always say, “They’re not really America, you know.” So I chose those places since I, too, am not really American. They also form a triangle on the map. I wanted to see how the landscape informs the people, but also how no matter how different our circumstances are we all struggle with defining what love is.
How did you go about looking for these various couples?
I wanted to hang myself with my freedom and get rescued by destiny. To just go to each place and trust that I will find the people that can benefit together with me from this kind of exploration. I looked for them everywhere interesting I could think of.
There were a few other couples I started filming that didn’t work out and at some point I broke my back in Alaska and was in a back brace for seven months and had to stop shooting. When I could walk again I started taking short walks in Central Park and that’s when I heard the beautiful singing of the Boyd family. It was always like that. One thing led to another.
How was Shia LaBeouf vital to making this film happen?
There wouldn’t be a film with out him. I’m very sure of that. I tried to raise the money for almost a year and got some very supportive grants from Cinereach and Tribeca, but no one would finance it. People don’t really want to take risks. A lot of companies want to brand them selves as risk takers but that’s all it is. Branding.
To really take a risk on something artistic that you’re not sure how to sell takes fearlessness and the ability to let go of the outcome and give in to the unknown. That’s not exactly a popular business model. I’ve heard people say to me that something made them cry and feel things they never felt before and yet pass on it. It’s about selling and lasting in the market.
What’s different about Shia is that he really is about the art and he’s not playing. He’ll risk everything to make something he believes in.
We met after he saw “Bombay Beach” and contacted me. Then we ended up doing the Sigur Ros music video together and that was actually in many ways the beginning of exploring this kind of feeling of failure in love.
After that, when he saw I was struggling with “LoveTrue,” he asked to see what I shot so far and then sent me a check in the mail for the entire budget of the film. It was a real Robin Hood moment. He was coming off all these Hollywood movies and putting that money into what he considered art.
Through the whole process and over four years he’s been always just making sure no one gets in the way of my freedom to do what ever I want with it. I kept the letter he wrote me with my passport and always read it when we traveled to shoot. I think that Shia as an actor and an artist has a genuine interest in what it means to perform on screen and in real life. This film explores those themes with in the context of love and our personal mythologies, and his help is now part of my own mythology.
Was “LoveTrue” as much of a low tech, one woman production as “Bombay Beach?” What camera did you use this time?
One-woman show in terms of the cinematography. In terms of production I wasn’t alone this time, and Christopher Leggett, who produced this film, literally gave a piece of his life to make it. I owe him big time for coming on this ride.
Other than one or two sequences I shot the whole thing alone with no lights. I used the Canon C300 because it’s very good in low light situations like the strip club. I was also recording hundreds of hours of interviews and needed an easy system of saving the footage. The underwater footage was shot on the Red with a local Hawaii underwater cinematographer named Elliott Leobe.
There’s reenactments in your films and you embrace staging moments so you can cinematically interpret moments. Are you tired of being asked what is “real” in your films? And do you think people have a limited definition of “truth” in documentary film?
It’s not exactly reenactments. We used Psychodrama techniques where Auxiliary Ego play parts in your story. They had to watch all the interviews and participate actively in the memories by improvising with the people and the Psychodrama therapist.
People have a limited definition of “truth” in real life so it’s only natural that they have a limited definition of it in documentary films. The truth is that they also have a limited definition of it in fiction films. That they often tell their children that they should stop lying and make up things when they use their imagination.
People in general favor their limited perception of reality over their dreams and their intuition. I just use film to help the people I work with and myself live a less binary existence and accept the magical and healing powers that cinema has so we can actually find a deeper truth and own our stories. Whether they are true or only exist in our minds but dictate our reality. We’re not all here in the same way, you know? I think I tap into a certain truth that can’t be told in words. That’s what I love about cinema.
I’m not tired about being asked about truth. I’m actually more tired lately of people who analyze performance in docs in an academic way that says everything is fake when you’re in front of the camera and cinema is escapism. I think they need to learn how to transcend that shit and read some poetry before they jump into conclusions.
Your filmmaking has perfectly transitioned into the music video and commercial worlds. Is making a fiction narrative film still a desire of yours? If yes, how radically different would your approach to narrative be as compared to documentary?
Thank you. My next film is actually going to be a narrative, but I intend to bring to it some of the same techniques I use with real people in my docs. By the way, I love that we call them real people as if actors aren’t real people. That’s exactly the problem with most fiction films. That the people in them in no way feel real.
It’s interesting to me that people are dealing with identity and representation in the doc world but I find it very limiting that it needs to be announced every two minutes while I watch the film or presented as a title in the opening to clarify it. They want to make sure someone who came to watch a doc won’t get a heart attack from a recreation sequence and mistrust the whole film. I don’t like to gain trust that way. It’s too easy.
I want to gain trust by externalizing the fluidity of the psyche and filmmaking. We keep dipping in and out of everything and everything is here. Available to us. As a filmmaker I want to eliminate the dualism for the viewer and, through that, gaining their trust in something that is whole. At that point subject and performer become one.
Cinema is a language I started to learn in my sleep and I never intend to practice it in a binary way. I just want to get more lucid.
“LoveTrue” will have its world premiere tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival.