The desolate and surreal Salton Sea in California stands as a formidable metaphor for the broken American Dream. The largest lake in California, it was created when the Colorado River flooded the windswept desert, carrying the river's entire volume into the Salton Sink over a period of Approximately two years. A dam was built and water filled the basin- the Salton Sea was born.
As the height of American optimism in the 1950s, the Salton Sea fueled a recreation boom, and the inland desert sea became an inviting vacation destination.
Today, after series of floods, the lack of water outflow, and the high salinity that has killed off the fish, Bombay Beach is little more than a shanty ghost town in the poorest county of California. The broken-down signs from the '50s and the sunken, ghostly Marina are still there to remind the community of the dream that once was the Salton Sea- and is now a pool of dead fish in the middle of the desert.
Known for her music videos for Beirut (Postcards from Italy, Elephant Gun), Bombay Beach is the first feature by the Isreali-born director Alma Har'el.
How did this unique movie come about?
I wanted to make a documentary with dance sequences in it. I am very interested in dances and movements in films. Sometimes people express themselves better without words. I'm also interested in people who are not professional dancers expressing themselves that way.
Why Bombay Beach? How did you end up there?
It all started with when I was doing location scouting for the music video, 'Concubine' by Beirut. Whenever I do music videos for Zach (Condon) and Beirut, I feel certain responsibilities to portray their music truthfully because I love their music. Their music is a constant inspiration to me.
I met Mike (Parrish) who's in the movie on the beach playing with other kids. So I asked him if he wanted to be in the music video and he said yes. Then his parents came and we talked. There was an immediate connection. So I asked them if I could comeback and visit their house and shoot there. After the music video came out, I showed it to the Parrish family and they loved it. They were touched by how they were portrayed in the video. So I moved in and lived with them for three, four months, documenting their lives.
Yes, I was going to ask you about the organic nature of this film. Everything seems so natural and spontaneous.
Nothing was really planned. They let their guards down since I was hanging out with them all the time. I'd call Ceejay and ask him if I could shoot something with him and he would say, "I'm doing nothing, come on over," or "I'm going to town, you wanna come along?" Everything was very natural. But at the same time, I could go to places in their lives where there were fantasies and dreams and dance and music. So it was a combination of those things. It's that shift between reality and fantasy that we ourselves experience everyday and every minute of our lives that I find interesting.
There are so many documentaries out there that are exploitative of their subjects.But this one doesn't feel that way at all.
I know some people think that this film is exploitative. My only intention was to be with these people and create something beautiful together. And I kept all the potentially harmful stuff to them out of the film. I didn't want to show anything against their will. And I'm very glad that they loved the film.
That's great. They saw the film!
Oh, of course! They were with me at Tribeca Film Festival. Pamela and Benny came out to New York for the premiere. It was their first time out of Bombay Beach and coming to New York. It was all new experience for them. It's so crazy that we meet some people in the out of nowhere and be together in New York and everything. I showed the film to Red and Ceejay and they were very happy too.
I keep in touch with everyone from the film. Benny is off the medications now and doing a lot better. Ceejay has gotten a full football scholarship and living in Minnesota now. Red is still alive and kicking, still selling cigarettes, drinking whiskey and hanging out with all his lady friends. He is now installing solar panels on his trailer so he can get free electricity.
When the DVD comes out there are going to be three little shorts for each characters about where they are now. In it you will see them watching the film and they will tell you what they think about it.
How much footage did you end up with at the end of the shoot?
Gosh, about one hundred sixty hours. I had to cut out two beautiful dance sequences. One is with Pamela dancing alone in a warehouse with her voice over, reading her letter to her husband who's in jail. Beirut did the music for that sequence. It's probably my favorite dance sequence. It just didn't fit the movie because I didn't want to move away too far from Benny, since he is the one I focused on. But you will see it on DVD.
So the movie ends and the credits roll and I don't see a crew list.You pretty much did everything by yourself!?
I had a small HD camera and wireless microphones. That's about it. That's how I could get all the intimate shots.
It's one of the most intimate documentaries I've ever seen.And it's also beautifully shot too.
I go down there every other week. After the movie came out, I took some of my friends and asked them if the place was as beautiful as they imagined. They all say it's more beautiful. Granted I shot many of the scenes at sunset, there is something really magical about that place. You just have to go there to see it for yourself.
Your husband (Boaz Yakin, director of Fresh, Price of Rubies, Remember the Titans) is also a filmmaker and serves here as a producer. But I don't see the resemblance in your filmmaking.
That's why we get along so well. (laughs) There is no competition between us, no confusion of who's who, because we are so different. But we always learn from each other and compliment each other.
So you just meet people and you inspire them and they inspire you, is that how it works in your filmmaking?
Pretty much. I love to be around creative people. That's the most important thing to me.
Winner of Best Feature Documentary at 2011, Tribeca Film Festival, Bombay Beach opens this Friday, October 14th at the IFC Center (in LA Oct. 21st). Following its theatrical release, the film will have a VOD and itunes release via Focus World on November 1st.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musing and opinions of the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com