5 Minutes with... Alma Har’el
For director Alma Har’el, the last couple of weeks have been a fantastic tornado. She’s joined forces with B-Reel Films. Her new film LoveTrue has hit the festival circuit to rave reviews. Oh, and yeah... she’s also the brains behind #FreeTheBid, a battlecry for female filmakers in (or trying to get into) advertising. Together with PJ Pereira, she’s corralled most of the world’s biggest advertising networks and got them to vow to include one woman in every three directors invited to pitch. It’s a much-needed initiative – when half of film school graduates are women but only 9.7% of rostered directors are, something needs to change. Her supporters include the likes Susan Credle, David Lubars, Spike Jonze, Matt Eastwood, Lori Senecal... you get the idea, this is massive.
But while #FreeTheBid is grabbing headlines in the advertising industry, it’s Alma’s film work that is gaining her fans and plaudits in movieland. Her work revels in that space between reality and imagination, an intoxicating kaleidoscope of colour, emotion and fantasy. Her documentary work sees her work closely and invest emotionally with her subjects, exploring their stories with experimental techniques – as a filmmaker she is not a fan of detached exploitation. Her music videos and commercial work includes projects for Facebook, a gothic fantasy for Stella Artois and an abstract, emotional journey for Sigur Rós’ Fjögur Píanó promo. Bombay Beach, her 2011 documentary, took top prize at Tribeca and earned her a fan in Shia LaBeouf, who has since starred in the Sigur Rós video and has executive produced her new film LoveTrue.
Inspired by #FreeTheBid and Alma’s mind-expanding directorial vision (and exceptional taste in psychedelic GIFs), LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with her to find out more.
LBB> It’s all going on for you right now! There’s #FreeTheBid, there’s the new relationship with B-Reel, and your film LoveTrue is being so well-received. What’s it like to be riding that wave?
AH> WILD. I’ve been working on my film LoveTrue for four years. It was a project of pure passion. When you see it you immediately understand that it was done under the radar. It’s not even an indie film. It was financed by Shia Labeouf and the hearts of everyone involved. Every dollar we had is on the screen and I couldn’t sustain myself financially for so long if I didn’t direct commercials from time to time. I hope that somehow it can all be connected now… Meaning more women filmmakers will get work in advertising and I will get to do some advertising work with B-Reel Films who’ve been incredibly helpful with the launch of #FreeTheBid.
LBB> Your work is infused with a sense of fantasy and imagination, even your documentary work. What is it about that line between reality and imagination that is so appealing to you?
AH> We walk that line every day. All of us.
I don’t think we’re complete human beings until we learn to live with our imagination and our fantasies. We run the risk of our lives becoming a symbolic mishap of everything we suppressed.
When we work on being present we discover that we’re the imaginations of ourselves. We spend a lot of our waking hours trying to figure out what is real and what’s just our perception of the world. Not to mention we spend one third of our lives sleeping and dreaming.
A lot of directors deal either with the imaginative and the fantastical or with the real and intimate. Life and art to me are about walking the line between them.
LBB> And it’s interesting that your documentary work really plays about with the borderland between the ‘real’ and the ‘imagined’… I guess you could argue that more ‘traditional’ documentaries are just as imagined and involve heavily constructed stories, even if they hide it. What are your thoughts on that?
AH> I find it impossible to try and capture truth without taking imagination into account. Both the imagination of my characters and my fantasies of who they are, become part of my films. I find some documentaries contrived and pathetic in their attempt to portray a ‘truth’ that is obviously manufactured in the editing and the commercial needs of the producers. On the other hand there are some shocking works of art based in true journalism. So there’s no one answer to how to make a doc. That’s why it’s a fascinating genre. I’m personally taking a break from it right now because of the personal toll it took on me to be involved in so many people’s lives. I made some real family and friends and I also got very hurt by certain relationships. I accept it all as part of the process but I need some time to write and make art without feeling such responsibility for the lives of others.
LBB> I’m fascinated by the use of psychodrama techniques and therapists in making LoveTrue – it goes to some very deep and raw places. How do you work with the subjects of your films to make sure that they stay healthy and well, as there is a real potential to go through unexpectedly challenging emotions?
AH> Before I started using these techniques I took three seminars of psychodrama myself and really went to some deep places with it. I took them months apart with different therapists and saw the effect it had on me and the people in my groups. I also established relationships with the psychodrama therapists themselves, and they were brought to work on the set with us. The process on the set wasn’t therapy and we made it clear to everyone that participated. I was adapting techniques from psychodrama with some very therapeutic results but we were engaged in filmmaking.
I find filmmaking to be the most therapeutic thing I’ve ever done so it’s all connected to me. The subjects of the film have all had such incredible developments in their lives after the film that I have to assume it was a positive experience. We were all in Tribeca together when it premiered and it seems like the challenging places we went to only liberated us from some baggage and allowed for some much needed changes. I have to say that I felt pretty stuck emotionally and professionally myself while making this film. I made it so I can deal with my own need to redefine love because I was going through a divorce and my ex-husband is my best friend in the world. The film made it possible for me to move on together with all the subjects and to feel love again.
LBB> I read an interview with you where you said something really interesting about the fact that you try to connect with the people in your documentaries, rather than trying to ‘disappear’ as the director. I think the phrase you used was ‘stealing intimacy’. Is being emotionally invested and available to the ‘subjects’ an important responsibility for directors?
AH> I kind of go by: ‘Fuck the fly on the wall… There’s an elephant in the room’. I’m not interested in stealing intimacy, yeah. I’m completely invested in my subjects emotionally and I need them to meet me half way. They have to commit to exploring and owning their story otherwise it feels very fake to me.
LBB> With your commercial and music video work, how do you decide whether you want to work on a project?
AH> With commercials it’s been a learning curve for me. I came to it at first from a passionate place of wanting to humanise certain things that I find to be disturbing and disappointing about commercials. Especially how women are represented. I feel that we live in a time where a lot of people are becoming their own brands and now a lot of brands want to become more human. Because of the nature of my work, big companies in Silicon Valley felt like I can capture this idea of ‘connecting’.
Connecting to the world, to each other, to our homes…
I have three things that drive me now. One is that I want to like the brand myself and feel good about giving my perspective and my skills to them. So, for instance I don’t do meat products because I don’t eat meat. The second is that there has to be an idea behind it or the freedom to pursue an idea. Commercials have a very quick window. So unlike my films where I can get lost in them for weeks and months this has to be an accurate job. I enjoy looking for moments on the set, but when you come back to the editing room the idea and the copy has to guide the work. I’m not interested in doing some Terrance Malik commercials and I actually feel like his films feel more and more like perfume commercials. It’s trippy how that line is getting blurred now. The third thing that I try to do is not take jobs that are very small budget and no man would do. I think I deserve to do jobs with equal potential as men.
With music videos it’s been a little trickier. I guess I passed on every music video since Sigur Rós. That experience has been so perfect and I can’t seem to find an artist that will give me that freedom. Music videos used to be so different just a few years ago. You either had huge budgets and little freedom or no budget and complete freedom. Now it seems you have no budgets and no freedom… Hard combo when you can just do a commercial or work on your own film with musicians you admire.
I might do something with Flying Lotus this year though. Fingers crossed.
LBB> I love the Sigur Rós film – the scenes and imagery felt like such vivid metaphors. What was your starting point for developing these images?
AH> Usually I just listen to the music and close my eyes. Then I see things. If it doesn’t work I drive or walk and listen to it. If I don’t see anything I probably shouldn’t do it. The first thing I saw when I heard the Sigur Rós song was the dead butterflies.
LBB> And how did you manage to work with the actors to get such raw, real performances in an emotional story that is depicted through quite abstract, fantastical scenes?
AH> I was lucky to work with Shia LaBeouf and Denna Thomsen. They were both open to try anything. The abstract and symbolic things all meant something to me so there was a hidden world of meanings that we were working with. I think that you can remove the literal from any work of art and if the emotional and the symbolic connect it will still hold a reality. That is what dreams are to us. I wanted to capture that feeling that something you don’t quite fully understand means so much to you.
LBB> And after that film you started to work more with Shia LaBeouf – creatively how does that collaboration work?
AH> Shia is my lost art brother. We have ups and downs but I never lose trust in our connection. He’s on a very intense journey both personally and artistically and we just share everything we can. He keeps me on track a lot of times and I’m there when he needs me. After Sigur Rós I was stuck and couldn’t find financing for LoveTrue. Shia stepped in and financed it so I can have the freedom to get lost in it. I hope the next thing we do will be a narrative.
LBB> The ‘boy’s club’ in advertising that can make it hard for female directors to get a foot in is a massive frustration – was there any one moment that made you decide, ‘right, I’m going to do something about this’?
AH> It was an accumulation of things. Seeing that I’m always the only woman bidding against other men. Not seeing women on the sets. Not getting boards for bigger jobs that only guys get to bid on. Then I did an interview for Mashable. A reporter named Valentina Valentini did some research and found out the jarring numbers of how few women directors there are.
After I did the interview I got tons of emails and wanted to do something. Then PJ Pereira from Pereira & O’Dell in San Francisco invited me to dinner and told me he read the interview with me, and decided to make it mandatory in his agency to have a woman director on every bid. I knew at that moment I had to take it to everyone I can but I couldn’t imagine how big it would get.
LBB> You’ve got some great agencies on-board to support this – how did you go about persuading the likes of David Lubars and Susan Credle to lend their voices to the movement?
AH> It was like Mission Impossible. I think I was possessed or something. I made a PDF describing the idea and how it would work and then started talking to everyone I could. PJ reached out to Kat Gordon from the 3% and she connected me to Cindy Gallop. One thing led to another and I would add anyone that joined to that PDF and then sent it to more people. My friends Crystal Moselle and Alia Shawkat connected me to Spike Jonze. Every person that joined us gave some advice and connected me to the next person and slowly it became this small army.
At some point it was as if the PDF went viral. I started talking to all the production companies and female directors. The idea was to reverse engineer everything that makes it hard for creatives to work with women.
Susan Credle from FCB was a huge help with contacting some of the bigger agencies and by the time we got to them the PDF was hard to say no to.
LBB> What’s fascinating is that the inclusion of women directors in pitches is now industry standard in Sweden and has been for some time… why do you think the rest of the world has been slower to get involved?
AH> I think it’s been challenging for agencies to join because a lot of them take it very literally. They think that they can never commit to it on every job… but it’s not a rule, it’s a principle. We also ask on our website that if you can’t find a woman you like for the job then find another way to diversify the bid. The ad world needs any diversity it can get.
LBB> I LOVE the movement and I’m so behind it, but I imagine detractors might say that there’s an element of tokenism to the campaign – what would you say to those people?
AH> I say take that token and run with it. Do some incredible work that spins heads. Or use the opportunity to learn and even fail because we all need that too. Men get those all the time. When I get a job and I know I only got it because an ad agency or a brand had to hire a woman I completely ignore it and just do the best work I can. I feel a responsibility to open the doors any way I can.
LBB> I’d love to go back to where you started as a filmmaker… can you remember why you decided to become a director? Do you remember the first time you started playing with a film camera?
AH> It was pretty late. I was 18. I was more interested in dance in theatre until I was 18. I think you can see it in my work. Then I started to be interested in film as a form of connecting all of the arts I was interested in, including music. I wanted to play images like you play music to an audience. The first films I made were actually very short experimental films that I would project at nightclubs in Tel Aviv and Berlin.
LBB> And aside from filmmaking, are there other creative mediums that you like to experiment with, or is film your main outlet?
AH> I love photography, dance, painting, music, performance art. But film can have all of those in it. That’s what’s cool about it.
LBB> You just signed with B-Reel – what was it about the team there that appealed to you? And what sort of projects are you hoping to do together?
AH> Margo Mars and I met at a screening of my first film Bombay Beach and I was bewitched by her. She’s such a beautiful spirit and has very similar taste to mine in everything. From films to GIFs! We knew each other for years but it was only now that everything aligned. I hope to do commercials with big storytelling that have some magical realistic CG elements, or dance and character work. I also hope to do jobs that allow me to change and broaden how women are represented in advertising. It is incredible how many fashion commercials are directed by men. I love the Miu Miu project of Women Tales. That would be something I would love to do.