Alma Har’el’s bewitching documentary traces the inhabitants of Bombay Beach, a remote ghost town on the Salton Sea in the Californian desert. A Palm Springs-style playground for the rich and famous in the 1950s, today it’s a desolate wasteland, home to less than 300 people, and best known for its crystal meth labs. Har’el, who cut her teeth directing music videos, intimately documents Bombay Beach’s remarkable community, while creating a haunting meditation on the broken American Dream.
Dazed Digital: How did you come across Bombay Beach?
Alma Har'el: I love post-apocalyptic desert towns and this one was the mother of all ghost towns. I was directing a music video for Zach Condon and the band Beirut. Zach had an idea to do a Midnight Cowboy-in-LA video. We were filming him walking around, being lonely in LA with that classic outfit. After I saw the footage I wanted to do something that could be the background story. A friend of mine suggested I drive with him to the Salton Sea, and once I got there I was hooked. A sea in the middle of the desert with majestic sunsets… A dream and a nightmare at the same time. It was haunting. I met two kids at the beach and shot the music video right then and there. They ended up being the main characters in the movie a year later.
DD: The area used to be a fancy holiday destination, right?
Alma Har'el: It all starts a long time ago in the beginning of the last century, 1905, when the Colorado River over-flooded. When there was no way of controlling it they diverted it into a big Salt Basin and created a sea. Over the years it turned into a popular vacation destination and in the 50s Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys had summer houses there. Lots of speed boat races, pretty girls, fishing and real-estate dreams.
Then there were floods in 1975 that covered the Marina and the salt levels went up in the summer. The fish started dying, the pesticides from all the farms around were flowing into the water… slowly it was turning into an ecological disaster and no one would put in the money to save it. Now it's surrounded by very strange ghost towns. Some are more lively than others but Bombay Beach is like no other. Rusted bus skeletons, eroding 50s signs and shoals of dead fish. A post-apocalyptic paradise that resembles a huge abandoned playground.
DD: What is the community like there?
Alma Har'el: It reminds 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 — that also typified my personal family life. This feeling of being thrust into this quirky, scary, macabre and celebratory core of life, was what I tried to capture in the movie. The community there is often noted whenever people want to talk about the crystal meth operations in the desert. There’s a lot of drugs and alcoholism in the Salton Sea area but the film is actually about the other types of people that live there. Those who are caught between the American dream and the American nightmare.
DD: One of your subjects, Red is like a mythical American figure... was he hard to win over?
Alma Har'el: Red is a very mythical figure. He worked in the oil fields, he survived the dust bowl era. He's the Marlboro man that never got cancer and the heavy whiskey drinker that never had a car accident. He's a character from so many Woody Guthrie songs and he has the most beautiful American English. He left home when he was 13 and never went to college but he sounds like a poet and his voice is rough like the land. He's a man from a different time. You can say he's a racist but that would be like discovering a fossil without knowing about the ice age. It took me a long time to gain his trust and his friendship and now that I have it I hope to not let go.
DD: Did you live there while you were filming?
Alma Har'el: I moved there for 5 months. I didn't live inside Bombay Beach because I was filming alone and afraid to stay there with all my equipment. I'm also Jewish and Israeli and the place had swastikas here and there, which didn't make me feel like I could sleep well at night. I ended up subletting a little place in a gated community in Indio. During July and August it was about 120 degrees so in the middle of the day my little camera would start melting. I ended up renting a room at the Bombay Beach motel and would go there with the kids between 12:00 and 2:00 when the heat was impossible.
We did most of the interviews there. It was a great way to survive the heat, but it started a horrible rumour that I was a pedophile which took me a few long months to shake. Some of the parents took their kids out of the film. I think it started because before I came there someone from Los Angeles shot a porn film in the same motel. The lady that rented me the room said “oh you're a filmmaker, they just shot a horror porn here a few weeks ago – took me three days to clean all the blood”. It was more funny than shocking the way she said it. She was such a nice lady.
DD: You thank Werner Herzog in the credits, how was he involved?
Alma Har'el: Werner's wife is a good friend of mine. Her name is Lena Herzog and she’s an incredible photographer. She's from Siberia and there is something cold, ethereal and painterly about her photographs. When I was younger I never really studied anything other than a one year course in film at Lambeth College in London of all places. After that I started doing video art performances, live mixing of videos in nightclubs. Everybody would dance drugged out of their minds with their eyes shut while I would stand next to the DJ and project Werner Herzog films, cut together with my own little film creations.
I was really lucky I got to meet Werner Herzog and Terry Gilliam in the past few years, two filmmakers that infused a lot of freedom and imagination into my life. Werner and Lena were the first people I showed the film to. Werner told me to never feel the need to explain too much why I made my film the way I did. He said “facts are for the phone book”. I love that.
DD: Your film touches on the idea of the American dream – as someone who moved to the US just a few years ago, what are your perceptions of experiencing it up close?
Alma Har'el: I grew up in Israel and the American dream defines so much of how I grew up. It's not really the American dream of having a house and a car, it's more of a middle eastern fantasy of long roads and dusty diners mixed with tacky films and happy endings. I remember listening to the Flashdance record when I would come back from school and dancing around my living room. I was shocked and felt totally deceived when I moved here and found out Jerry Bruckheimer produced it!
The sick orgy of freedom, democracy and capitalism really hits you early in life but you can't just erase all the beautiful things. Sometimes mountains of coca-cola sugar run in your blood when you listen to Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen. Why try to separate. When I came to California I started seeing the complexity of the broken American dream. The people, their faces, how surreal their dreams are. I wanted to take a more intimate look at it, but remember how naive I was as a child – and how much I love Ketchup…