How Israeli-American Director Alma Har'el Found Inspiration in Losing True Love

The Tel Aviv glamour girl who became the darling of America's indie documentary and music video worlds talks about balancing commercial success while staying true to your values.

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Alma Har'el.
Alma Har'el.Credit: Piper Ferguson
Shachar Atwan
Shachar Atwan

On January 21, the day after Donald Trump was sworn in as president of the United States, Alma Har’el participated in the Women’s March on Washington protesting the new regime and in support of the rights of women and minorities. At a certain point she lost track of her friends among the hundreds of thousands of participants. For many long minutes she tried to make her way through the crowd to find her friends until suddenly she came upon an improvised performance by a women’s choir.

“I can’t keep quiet, no,” they sang in unison. Harel didn't miss a beat, pulled her smartphone out of her pocket and stood facing them, moved to tears, documenting the women as they sang. Later that same day, on the flight back home to Los Angeles, she uploaded the video to her Twitter account and her Facebook page, and within a few days she chalked up millions of viewings. Women around the world called what she recorded “the anthem of the Women’s March.”

For Har’el, 39, the Tel Aviv-born filmmaker who has been living in the United States since 2008 (dividing her time between New York and Los Angeles), this incident was a kind of distillation of her way of working: “Getting lost, finding people who can touch me deeply and afterward telling their story so they can connect to people who need to hear them,” as she puts it in a telephone conversation.

And indeed, this is to a large extent what happened in the two documentary films Har'el has directed thus far: her debut effort, “Bombay Beach” in 2011, and “LoveTrue” in 2016. The stories she wove into each of them touched the hearts of many viewers and won acclaim at film festivals around the world. “Bombay Beach” was selected as best documentary at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and singled out Har’el as a promising artist in the industry. Her name has also appeared in pieces on up-and-coming people in the world of cinema in professional publications like the online IndieWire site and Filmmaker Magazine. Next month she will return to the Tribeca Festival as a member of the jury.

“Bombay Beach” has to date been screened at more than 50 international film festivals, among them Edinburgh and Sheffield in Great Britain, and Guanajuato in Mexico, sweeping up additional awards. “LoveTrue,” which premiered at Tribeca last year, has also made its mark internationally: After screenings in London, Melbourne, Amsterdam, the Czech Republic, Colorado and Tel Aviv (at the DocAviv Film Festival) – also garnering prizes – the film will be shown on Netflix in May.

Her entrance into the realm of cinema has not constituted a self-evident transformation for Har’el, a former model and glamour girl in Tel Aviv, who was identified with the nightlife scene there – and it was long in the making. In Israel her rather frivolous image was an impediment to realizing her artistic ambitions and it was only after she moved to the U.S. that she was truly able to reinvent herself.

In both of her films, director Har'el has featured decidedly non-photogenic images of the American dream. In “Bombay Beach,” she followed three individuals who found themselves in an impoverished community living on a strip of beach in southern California. The seven members of the Tribeca festival jury, among them actors Whoopi Goldberg and Michael Cera, unanimously chose it for best documentary because of its “beauty, lyricism, empathy and invention.”

“LoveTrue” is also composed of three parts, but this time they are set in different places in the U.S.: Hawaii, Alaska and New York. The idea behind the work is embodied in its title – the reversal of the term “true love” – and was born of Har'el's separation from her husband, American-born Hollywood director and screenwriter Boaz Yakin ("Fresh,” “A Price Above Rubies"), for whom she moved to the States.

Boaz Yakin.
Boaz Yakin.Credit: Natan Dvir

“The idea," Har'el explains, "was to show the flip side of true love and to ask what there is on the other side. I liked the idea that the two things are actually one: They are opposites but they aren’t separate."

Of her former husband, she says, “Today we are the best of friends and we produce films together. At the moment we are producing a movie about his father, Moni Yakin, one of the founders of the acting program at the Julliard School in New York. Boaz is my family and I am his. We are in daily contact and we go out together with my current partner. It’s hard to believe, but our friendship overcame the situation we had been in.”

From 'LoveTrue.'
From 'LoveTrue.'Credit: DOGWOOF

Har’el relates that the casting of professional actors alongside the individuals documented in "LoveTrue" enabled her to expose the theatrical element that is found both in falling in love and acting in front of a camera. She says she does not think she will continue to make documentaries much longer, and adds that her aim is to make films involving the participation of actors and also “of people who live the reality the film portrays. Actors, too, look for authenticity and are interested in ideas of performance and truth, and of the dynamic that is created between narcissism and authenticity.” Indeed, until now she has ensured that the protagonists of her films are full partners in the making of them.

“Instead of telling them to act natural, supposedly, while I am pretending to be a fly on the wall – you make them to accept responsibility for the idea of telling their story,” she says.

Har’el is not alone in using this approach. Her work is part of a new wave of documentary filmmaking that began to flourish at the end of the last decade, in which directors engage with the medium itself and in undermining its assumptions, trying to understand how it's possible to tell a story or testify about reality by means of new technologies and devices that necessarily affect that reality. This wave includes movies like “Citizenfour,” directed by Laura Poitras, “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” by British artist Banksy, and Clio Bernard’s “The Arbor,” which Har’el says is one of her favorites.

There are those who see similarities between Har'el's work and that of American director Harmony Korine, who is not part of this same new wave. The resemblance between the two is immediately evident on the visual level – in the poetic aesthetics and in the attraction to remote communities, where the fragments of an American dream that has burst have become embedded.

Har'el: “I like Korine very much and I think I have been very much influenced by him. After I made ‘Bombay Beach,’ he wrote to me that he liked the film a lot. It was important to me to hear that.”

Airbnb and Chanel

Had she remained in Israel, Har'el says, it is doubtful she would have succeeded in expressing herself creatively as she does now. Along with her film projects, she has also accumulated an impressive portfolio of work in the areas of advertising and directing music videos, including projects on behalf of brands like Stella Artois (last year, she became the first woman to direct a video for the Belgian beer) and the American band Beirut.

She chalked up a high point in 2012, when she was chosen to direct a music video for the admired Icelandic group Sigur Rós. In the clip for the song “Fjögur Píanó,” Har’el depicted a surrealistic scenario that stretched between everyday experience and dreams. Actor Shia LaBeouf participated in the video, after having seen “Bombay Beach,” falling in love with the film and contacting Har’el. Eventually, when she was trying to raise funding for her second film, LaBeouf offered to produce it – and in the end also financed the production.

Just as she evidences a non-puristic approach to documentary filmmaking, Har’el does not attempt to separate her commercial work from her artistic work. She has no difficulty with the fact that her output in one realm may lead to offers in another, as happened not long ago. She doesn't see anything problematic, for example, with working with giant concerns like Facebook or Airbnb, and recently she directed a video for Chanel entitled “Jellywolf.” Seven-and-a-half minutes long, it was uploaded to the internet last month as part of a series of collaborative efforts that the fashion house initiated with five female artists from around the world.

“Jellywolf” depicts a young girl’s ostensibly innocent visit to a beauty salon located in an apocalyptic-futuristic metropolis in the style of “Blade Runner,” which sends her on a psychedelic and spiritual journey into female empowerment after she drinks a glass of water taken from a mysterious aquarium. The two protagonists of the film, played by Kiersey Clemons and Lisa Bonet, are biracial. She says she had good reasons to cast the two of them, beyond the immediate statement made by the color of their skin: “I got to them through Zo Kravitz, Lisa’s [and singer Lenny Kravitz's] daughter ... [who] performed with Kiersey in the film ‘Dope.’ I saw Kiersey in the TV series ‘Transparent’ and fell in love with her immediately, and I have loved Lisa since the film ‘Angel Heart.' To my mind she has always symbolized a kind of femininity that isn’t seen much on the screen, because there is something in it that is very sexual but also spiritual and natural.”

Not everyone liked the fact that Har’el decided to collaborate with Chanel, which some claim is responsible for promoting problematic body images and encouraging excessive consumerism among women.

“Just now I've just had an argument on Facebook with a young girl who wrote: ‘How do you even dare to work with those brands and corporations that are such exploiters? You don’t care at all.’ I respect her very much but she apparently doesn’t have to deal with the fact that she needs to support herself,” says Har’el.

“For many people, it’s natural to do this in order to realize other things they want to do, or to advance their agenda or to change the shocking status of women in the world. In the U.S., people say: ‘How can you complain? Look at what is happening in the Arab countries.’ In fact, what they are saying is: Say thank you because they aren’t stoning you or doing female circumcision on you – and shut up. I think that as more and more women speak out and express themselves, the image of women and the whole attitude toward them and the values they advance will also naturally change.”

Alma Har'el.
Alma Har'el.Credit: Jeff Spicer / Getty Images for B

Those who have condemned Har’el for collaborating with corporations like Chanel may be surprised to discover that last September, she was the moving spirit behind a new initiative to advance female directors in the advertising industry. The campaign, #FreeTheBid, conducted in cooperation with a number of top figures in that realm, is aimed at addressing what is seen as the gender bias rooted in the industry, in which only 7 percent of the personnel are women.

As part of this campaign, Har’el and her colleagues are demanding that advertising agencies commit to promoting women when it comes to hiring teams to spearhead ad campaigns and make commercials. The logic here is that if women constitute the largest group of consumers (85 percent of those deciding on the purchase of various products, according to surveys) – why shouldn’t there be a greater female presence when it comes to creating and directing advertising projects?

Har’el says she's already obtained a commitment to improve the situation for women from leading advertising firms including Joan Agency, DDB, FCB Global, 180 and Mother; brands like Visa, HP and Coca-Cola; production companies; and top names like filmmaker Spike Jonze, who also directs advertisements, and creative director Anna Higgs. Har'el also initiated screenings of films by young female directors and the uploading of portfolios of women's work on the campaign's website.

“When we started the project, every advertising agency we spoke to said: ‘We’d very much like to do this but we can’t because there are only three or four directors who are women,’” says Har’el. But now, she adds, “We have more than 300 female directors who are represented on the website, and therefore we are changing reality. The fact that we pitched works by female directors to advertising agencies led to a number of new projects led by women. At the Super Bowl this year, five [out of 51] commercials were directed by women, and this is a new record. But it's still the Super Bowl that you're watching. Ask how many women are present there and how are they are represented – and you understand how much change still needs to be made.”