First Docville screening: Bombay Beach Jan. 26

RIDM’s monthly documentary series, Docville, kicks off its 2012 season with Bombay Beach, a film at the crossroads of documentary, fiction, music video and fever dreams and winner of the Best Documentary Feature award at the Tribeca Film Festival.

On the shores of the Salton Sea – an artificial saltwater lake in the middle of the Colorado desert – a community of outcasts has taken up residence in the decrepit resort of Bombay Beach, now a ghost town. Video artist and photographer Alma Har’el grasped the immense cinematic potential of this post-apocalyptic landscape, a visual metaphor for an American Dream that’s running on fumes.

Har’el, who juggled numerous roles as the film’s director, producer, cinematographer, and co-editor, will be answering questions via Skype following the screening at Excentris on Jan. 26. For now, we are pleased to present a few excerpts from an interview with her.

How did you find Bombay Beach?
Alma Har’el: I was working on a music video for Beirut (Zach Condon) and joined the band in Coachella, hoping to grab a few shots of Zach in the desert to complement the stuff we already shot in LA. Their schedule turned out to be a lot more hectic then we all expected and the nights much longer, so I took a little trip one morning with my friend Brian Perkins, who thought I would love the Salton Sea as a location. He drove us along the shore and we ended up at Bombay Beach. The day after I took the car and drove there again by myself and then came back a third time in the evening.

I was pretty much hooked right away. It reminded me of a place I lived in for a few years when I was in Israel called Mitpe Ramon. A place that makes me feel like civilization is gone or only now beginning again after some horrible ending. On that evening I met Mike Jr. and Benny Parrish on the beach, and asked them to be in the music video. We shot through sunset and I returned the day after to shoot in their house. Mike Jr. was playing Zach when he was a young boy in what ended up being the music video for the song “Concubine”.

I already started to think about doing the movie right then and there and asked them if they would want to do it. They were my real partners through this whole thing, and it all started from that immediate connection when we did the music video. Then started a long process of trying to make it happen with outside financing that pretty much failed and led to me just shooting the whole movie alone over the course of a year.

As a non-American filming this desiccation of the American dream, what can you say about your perspective?
AH: I find Bombay Beach to be both tragic and beautiful in surreal ways that are hard to capture and that’s why I found it captivating. It’s really a place out of sight but photographers drive a long way there every evening to take photos of the majestic sunsets and the decaying signs. They have no clue who lives there and the people that live there have no clue as to why these photographers are taking photos of this place which they are stuck in.

The state of things in America now is fascinating. You see how the dream not only died but turned into a twisted fantasy that feeds all sorts of astonishing and symbolic situations. To think a teenager from Los Angeles would move to Bombay Beach to “make it” is saying a lot about how complex it is. The Parrishes’ obsession with the army and weapons that got them into jail was another strong metaphor, and of course Red, who is full of American “wisdom” in its most earnest way. He’s like the Marlboro Man who never got cancer and instead became a “lucky cuss,” to use his own words, who appreciates the real pleasures in life while living under the shadow of his own racism, which was handed down to him innocently.

How did you achieve such intimate moments with the characters and families in the film?
AH: I just moved in! I lived there for months, and had no crew, so they just got used to me. We had a rule that no one can look into the camera and we would go and improvise things and shoot dance sequences, so in a way when I was at home with them, it was like a break from work. A lot of the intimate stuff would happen then. Naturally. In the end, most of the improvised scenes didn’t even make it to the film but working on them made them feel very comfortable with the camera and the mics on them. It’s also the fact that I shot it with a camera that is very small and not intrusive that really helped.

Do you think of this film in terms of documentary, or as something else?
AH: It is what it is. I used many different techniques that some purists might not accept as documentary, but I don’t really think defining it as something else would be accurate. I sometimes used improvisation, set ups and choreographed dance in order to capture something that I saw in this place and my reaction to it–for example, when CeeJay and Davian talk to the white mask to practice how to come on to a girl–but at the end of the day I see it as a documentary. Everything in it was inspired by the people in it, their lives, and their input to what I was doing.


Docville 2012 > The last Thursday of every month, Montreal film lovers will be treated to the exclusive premiere of a brand new documentary that is making waves on the international festival circuit. All screenings take place at Cinéma Excentris and begin at 7 p.m. A pass for all 8 screenings is on sale for $50 on our website and at Excentris. Presented in collaboration with Ubisoft, Télé-Québec and Excentris.

Bombay Beach (USA, 2011, 80 min, English version)
Jan. 26, 2012
Cinéma Excentris, 3536 St-Laurent
7 p.m.