Bombay Beach sounds like an exotic city south of Mumbai, India, filled with dancing, colors and lots of music.
The real Bombay Beach is not that place.
In the middle of the 20th century, Bombay Beach, Calif., was a common destination for American families. With a gorgeous shore and a small-town feel, tourists flocked to the destination searching for paradise.
But the Bombay Beach of 1950 has disappeared. In its wake lies a desolate community with a total population of 295, most of which lives in small trailers minutes away from the sparkling beach that taunts the viewer of what it used to be.
It’s surprising to learn that Bombay Beach — celebrated music video director Alma Har’el’s first documentary — is the first film to really depict what exactly is going on in this small town.
Bombay Beach is a rare film; it’s not about political struggles or oil disasters or a financial meltdown. In parts, the subjects break out into dance to music by Beirut and Bob Dylan — sometimes choreographed, sometimes not.
This is exactly the kind of eccentric film the director wanted to create.
Not that it was particularly easy. Har’el said the difficulty of the production lies in her absence of a crew or plan.
“For four or five months, I’d drive down to Bombay Beach every day,” she said. “I was alone and I didn’t have a schedule or plan. I was completely by myself.”
Though some might see a lack of crew as a liability, Har’el channeled the absence into an advantage. Alone, Har’el managed to gain the trust of the Bombay Beach community quickly.
“I tried to develop a relationship with them,” she said. “I was always trying to get what you think is beautiful without pushing them too much.”
According to Har’el, the film’s subjects were very open people and were thirsty for some creativity.
“I think it’s rather boring over there so it’s something that they seemed to be very excited about from the start,” Har’el said.
The cooperation of the people in Bombay Beach is evident; each person is extremely open and shows every inch of their lives no matter how sad nor how happy.
Har’el’s cinematography is one of the film’s strongest elements. Bombay Beach is full of natural beauty; desert mounds, beaches, even the impoverished trailers manage to look stunning against the gorgeous sunset they experience each night. Each shot looks like a moving painting, illustrating the rugged beauty of the town and the people who inhabit it.
Har’el started as a photographer before directing music videos, and stumbled upon Bombay Beach while filming a video for Beirut.
Incredibly popular in the photography world because of its natural beauty, the town ended up being the perfect setting for Har’el’s first feature.
“I was curious about the lives there and I immediately thought I could use the landscape and atmosphere,” she said. “It fascinated me that all these people go there to photograph.”
Har’el’s journey to create Bombay Beach began when she started to think about the people of Bombay Beach, which prompted her to use Mike Parrish, a young boy from the town, in Beirut’s “Concubine” video.
“I loved the video so much that I decided to go back and continue a story,” Har’el said.
Parrish led Har’el to his family, a family dealing with bipolar disorder, poverty and a criminal record whose story was begging to be told.
But Har’el’s storytelling methods are not exactly ordinary.
Though many documentaries follow a certain structure involving interviews, archive footage and a dramatic orchestra score, Bombay Beach forgoes these stereotypaical aspects.
“I’m not too crazy about the talking head format,” Har’el said. “I didn’t want it to be informative or educational.”
Instead, Har’el’s intention was to “capture a certain motion and a mood [that people have] when they’re part of a world that’s small and at the same time special to them.”
“Talking heads,” as she calls them, can be tempting to use. To combat the cliché and keep her vision in place, Har’el maintained a unique plan.
“I’d film the [interviews] badly,” she laughed. “I didn’t want to be tempted to use it. I didn’t even give myself that option. I just had to find a creative way to weave that into the story.”
Some might see Bombay Beach as a town of limitations, but Har’el believes the limitations sometimes create that specialness.
“I was trying to capture something else, a more child-like view when things are clear to you and you wonder what’s the reality outside of where you live,” Har’el said.