Every once in a while, an artist comes along who changes the way we think about film. Alma Har'el is one of those.
The first time I saw Alma Har'el, I knew she was a force of nature. She swept into the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011 in a shock of red curls and described to the audience how funders laughed at her when she approached them with her festival film Bombay Beach. She ended up having the last laugh when the film won that year's Best Documentary award with its wildly inventive approach, breaking up the traditional doc structure with improvised dance scenes featuring non-dancer subjects.
This year, she was back at Tribeca with a new—and I use the term loosely—documentary, LoveTrue. Har'el is reluctant to have her work confined to a label. Because nothing is typical of her, we sat down in a candlelit bar instead of a press room during the festival, where she told me, "I don't think there are any rules in cinema. I don't like that binary divide between documentary and fiction. I don't even understand it."
That philosophy is clear in LoveTrue, where nothing is fictionalized, but psychotherapy sessions featuring actors playing the protagonists' older and younger selves are seamlessly woven throughout the narrative, creating a strange and almost mystical ode to the complications of love.
"[The characters] need to fully participate in the filmmaking in a way that is committed, because they are telling their own real story using film as its voice."
Before she began creating this modern love story, Har'el had to find subjects—a daunting task when the story could be about literally anyone who has ever experienced heartbreak. Her lack of specific casting parameters and desire to "get hung by my own freedom and then be rescued by destiny" led Har'el to focus on three very different young characters. The film features Blake, a stripper from Alaska involved with a man whose physical condition affects their sexual encounters; Willie, a Hawaiian surfer and coconut harvester in the midst of raising a toddler son who he discovers is not biologically his; and Victory, a startlingly talented singer in New York City who is trying to hold her siblings together in the aftermath of their parents' complicated separation.
In order to craft the film's narrative according to her subjects' memories, Har'el had to rely on them as full collaborators. "The way I work is very intuitive," she explained, "and I don't really always know what's going to happen next, so a lot of it is dictated by what they bring." She tries to make her subjects partners by being open about her process and intentions. "They need to fully participate in the filmmaking in a way that is committed, not just as much as an actor but even more because they are committing to telling their own real story using film as its voice."
Har'el's camerawork and editing help us understand that we are somehow dealing with subconscious reality.
After extensive interviews, she picks scenes that are fundamental to the characters' lives. "You know in that moment when they [say] it," said Har'el. "It's like [how] friends will tell it you a certain memory every time as if it's for the first time. It just defines so much of them. They won't be aware that they already told you ten times before because it's such a milestone for them that whenever they talk about it, it's like it's the first time."
Once she has identified those moments, Har'el brings the subjects into filmed improvisational sessions with a psychodrama therapist and actors playing the key roles from their lives, including versions of themselves at various ages. The protagonists will then act as directors and "the auxiliary egos who play parts of them, or parts of their memories, take on the instructions that they give," Har'el said.
It's hard to imagine when watching the resulting surreally dramatic material, but Har'el never tells characters what to say. "It's their memories and they bring them to life," she explained, "and then I can prompt things. If a character is instructing their younger self, I could say, 'What would you tell them about this?' To her younger self I could ask, 'What do you think she should do?'"
The exercises that led to one such memorable scene took several days, but the results are captivating. Blake, the stripper, reenacts an experience of being bullied as a young girl, complete with a school bus, a head full of ants, and a full cast. But it's not a corny recreation. It's a Dickensian scenario where we are watching Blake actually relive the experience as she remembers it, and Har'el's camerawork and editing help us understand that we are somehow dealing with subconscious reality.
As is the case with several contemporary auteurs, Har'el kicked off her directing career with music videos for indie favorites like Beirut and Fanfarlo. (She cast a nude Shia LeBeouf with modern dancer Denna Thomsen in a gorgeous Sigur Rós video before Sia ever did. Just saying.) True to her roots, music plays a large role in her films. "The movie is just not whole until I know what the music is," she explained. Zach Condon from Beirut did the score for Bombay Beach, and electronic music producer Flying Lotus composed LoveTrue.
"I have one leg here and one leg in dreams, memories, outer space. But I think [Flying Lotus] is completely over there."
She was so convinced that FlyLo was the right man for LoveTrue that she looked for him for over a year. She knew he had to do it because "I live in this world. I have one leg here and one leg in dreams, memories, outer space. But I think he is completely over there. He's only interacts, I feel, out of practical reasons, but if he was given a choice, I think he would just live [in outer space]." FlyLo's otherworldly influence is the glue of the film, enhancing Har'el's visual atmosphere with his own brand of mystery-tinged love songs.
It wasn't only in tracking down Flying Lotus that Har'el committed to getting LoveTrue made. In fact, she literally broke her back a year into the filming—and kept shooting. The story contributes to the mystique of the finished project; Har’el had never broken a bone in her life until filming protagonist Blake's boyfriend, who suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta and has broken his bones over 200 times. Har'el said, "It felt quite mystical in some twisted way and like there's a lesson to be learned there about proportion and how to live with pain."
Har'el decided to stay behind the Canon C300 herself instead of hiring a replacement shooter because "too much was at stake," she said. "Some of the characters were at an important juncture and we'd been working for a long time to uncover their fears and their hopes. I knew that if we missed those events, I wouldn't have a film."
She shot on and off of a wheelchair with a back brace and took breaks when she couldn't stand the pain. Thankfully, she wasn't the only crew member who was fully committed. "My producer Chris Leggett helped me get dressed and move around. It was very humbling and I've never felt so helpless, but I wanted to keep going as much as I could until I was sure I captured what was crucial for the film."
Once she was flown back to NY, she temporarily lost all feeling in her legs because of the swelling in her back. After a spinal shot that helped her regain sensation, she had to lie down for about four months in a back brace and then do physical therapy for another four. But, again, true to the cosmic nature of the work, Har'el discovered her third character, Victory, singing in Central Park with her family while she was taking a daily walk mandated by the physical therapist.
Har'el's devotion to her characters and craft comes across in her work, and the relationships extend beyond the borders of the frame into real life. After directing LaBeouf in the Sigur Rós video, he came on as executive producer of LoveTrue. She is in touch with her cast from Bombay Beach, and publicly credits them with "making me a filmmaker."
"I am all about finding the subjective experience and externalizing it."
True to form, I spotted the film's subjects Blake and Willie—flown in for the premiere—mingling at the screening’s after-party along with Michael Cera, Spike Jonze, and other indie notables. Har'el wanted to make sure to tell me how everyone is doing now. (They're doing well, it seems: Blake is happily married and attending college, Willie is gaining notoriety as a pro-surfer, and Victory's music is garnering interest from record labels.)
After four years spent on LoveTrue, we can only wait with eager anticipation for Har'el's next project. Distinguishing her work from documentary journalism, she said, "I am all about finding the subjective experience and externalizing it." Whatever experiences she decides to externalize next, I'll surely be in the front row to catch them.