May 21, 2012 3:01PM

Oyster #99: Film Director Alma Har'el

We speak with the Tel Aviv–born filmmaker about her award-winning 'Bombay Beach' documentary.

In the century since the birth of cinema, some of the most visceral and innovative voices have been female. It was arguably a woman who kicked off the industry as we know it: when unsung French pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché swapped her secretarial job for a camera in 1896, she became the first person to shoot a fictional story, as others simply filmed the street life around them. One hundred and four years later, Kathryn Bigelow made history when she became the first female to collect the Oscar for Best Director, suggesting the male-dominated landscape is showing signs of change. We spoke to three rising young filmmakers who are blazing a trail of their own — Ry-Ruoss-Young, Mia Hansen-Løve and, finally, Alma Har'el.

One hundred and fifty miles east of Los Angeles, a desert ghost-town on the edge of the Salton Sea gave filmmaker Alma Har'el the inspiration for her first documentary. In the fifties Bombay Beach was a luxury playground rivalling Palm Springs. The West Coast jet set raced speedboats on the lake and Frank Sinatra built a summerhouse on its shores. After an ecological disaster the money disappeared, and today it's better known for its meth labs, rusting car-skeletons and dying fish. Har'el was at Coachella shooting a music video for Beirut when she discovered the desolate stretch of desert, and began documenting the lives of its community caught somewhere between the American Dream and nightmare in the 120-degree heat. "It was post-apocalyptic; a place forgotten by society," says the Tel Aviv–born filmmaker. Her visceral documentary illuminates the lives of a handful of characters from the town — an over-medicated young boy, a teenage football hopeful escaping South Central LA's gang violence, and an ancient former oil-field worker — and weaves them together with loosely choreographed dance sequences that create a woozy, dreamlike atmosphere. "They're resilient characters trying to make the best with what they've got — which is not a lot." 

She felt an immediate kinship with the area, which stemmed from her childhood growing up in Israel. "It was the idea that the place you were born used to be a kind of promise, a hope, and yet the reality of it was so violent and unresolved." Har'el started out as a TV presenter before moving into directing via a stint of VJing in clubs. "I never studied film, so that was my film school," she recalls. "I wanted to feel as though I was playing videos like a musical instrument — editing them live, with people reacting. That still has a big impact on me to this day. I really look for a certain energy and the feeling that it evokes." After marrying fellow director Boaz Yakin, Har'el moved to LA and began making music videos for Beirut and Jack Peñate, among others — the weekend I spoke to her she was shooting a short for Sigur Rós with Shia LaBeouf, after the actor saw Bombay Beach and suggested to Har'el that they work together. Meanwhile she has plans for a new documentary — a meditation on love that will take a similarly fluid, experimental approach to her subjects — as well as a fictional feature. "You know when you dream at night, not everything makes sense, but it's still your own? I hope to achieve that: something scripted, but also personal and dreamy."  

Words: Hannah Lack 
Photography: Benedict Brink

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