In the Spotlight: Alma Har’el, Director and Cinematographer of LoveTrue
After stunning the documentary world with her debut feature, Bombay Beach in 2011 Alma Har’el returns to cinema screens with her highly-anticipated second feature, LoveTrue. The film premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and went on to screen at top festivals across the globe including Hot Docs, the London Film Festival and IDFA.
LoveTrue poetically interweaves the stories of three young people in different cities in the US struggling to re-define their understanding of and relationship with the concept of ‘true love’ in the face of traumatic events in their own lives. Har’el’s unique, genre-bending approach blurs the line between documentary and performance, and with LoveTrue she employs psychodrama as a method through which to explore her characters’ pasts, allowing them – and the audience – to contemplate the complex interrelations of memory, truth and emotion to great effect. The film was exec produced by actor Shia LaBeouf and features a hypnotizing score by critically-acclaimed producer Flying Lotus.
WFTV caught up with Har’el whilst she was in the UK to talk love, filmmaking and a little bit of politics!
WFTV: Love is a mammoth subject to take on. I’m interested to know why – at this point in your career – you decided to make a film around that theme?
AH: At the time, I was going through a separation from my husband and I felt I needed to redefine my relationship to love and to have a broader understanding of what it means, not just in a romantic context. I was also having some sort of a questioning process about my relationship with film. Because your first film, in many ways, is like falling in love. It’s extremely romantic, and then entering your second film it’s almost that you are already deep into the relationship and you discover certain things are not what you thought, and how do you live with them? It was the combination of both of those things that gave birth to LoveTrue.
And I was having some sort of an inner dialogue between who I was, how I used to look at love and things from my childhood, whether they were traumatic or over-romanticised, things that were influencing my expectations of love. And then certain fears of who I will become and who I am if I have failed in love. I wanted to externalise this inner dialogue and experience it with other people. Using psychodrama, which is the technique I used in the film, as an interesting way to do it.
WFTV: The three main characters in the film also seem to be at a similar moment in their lives in terms of their relationship to love, I’m just wondering how you found them?
AH: I think I’m a big believer in sort of getting lost and then finding things and having some sort of a sense of synchronicity and destiny between you and other people. So, I cast the locations before I cast the people. I just went (to those places) and literally got lost in them until I found the right people.
WFTV: And how did you know you’d found the right people?
AH: I think it’s pretty similar to how you know you want to be in a love relationship. You just know that you’re engaged to somebody or interested in them. They carry things that allow you to understand something about life and about yourself. You have something to give them that allows them to understand themselves better and then you stay together. It’s a certain kinship and attraction and empathy. It’s a culmination of those things.
WFTV: You experience some really intimate moments with your characters, I’m just wondering how you built those relationships with them? So, you’re saying it’s a bit like falling in love and starting a relationship?
AH: Yeah, but that’s different. I think fuck the fly on the wall attitude, where you have to pretend like nothing is happening and become a fly on the wall and film a person. And instead of that, I’m actually a bigger believer in the elephant in the room, which is, ‘we’re making a film together and we are telling your story and you’re going to be a partner in it’. A big way that I create intimacy is actually to admit that, and to recognise it, to speak about it and to make the process more honest. I’m not trying to disappear and pretend that this is some reality that I captured. Instead, it’s like, ‘No, we’re making a film together’. You are partner to this and you should open your story and realise something about yourself by owning your story, by understanding what your story looks like from the outside and maybe you will discover that certain things are alive, in the way you perceive yourself or tell yourself about yourself. Maybe you will discover that you are a lot more heroic than you give yourself credit for. Whatever it is, you are a partner in that and to me, that admission actually creates intimacy.
“When I am behind the camera, there are certain nuances to the things I notice and there’s a certain intimacy between me and the people that I film.”
WFTV: I’m interested about how that feeds into the fact that you are the cinematographer of your films. I’m wondering how important you feel it is that you are the person behind the camera?
AH: In my dreams, I have other people filming my films and other people editing my films. But I feel that when I am behind the camera, there are certain nuances to the things I notice and there’s a certain intimacy between me and the people that I film, that is very specific to the tone of the film. What is that thing? I’m not sure. I’m learning, you know, but again, I think it’s a certain kind of empathy and a certain kind of interest in human experience and in the graceful way in which we carry our pain and our struggles.
I think that there’s an incredible amount of emotion that can be shown through a camera, through a lens, and it’s very hard to understand how that works, because it could be the same frame but with ten different people it looks so different. And I’m not really sure how that works but I think that is the magic and the spiritual aspect of cinema. That is why Native Americans say that you capture the soul when you take a photo because it’s not the camera, it’s you and what you see through the camera and your chemistry with the person in front of it and how you make them feel and your energy together, combined. In that regard, cinema to me is such a therapeutic, magical thing that I do to survive. It’s not like I could do a million things and I just said ‘Okay, I’ll do cinema’. No, it’s the only thing I can do. So maybe that kind of urgency and that kind of need to do it comes through the camera sometimes.
WFTV: Knowing all the practical and technical things that you have to be conscious of while you’re shooting – the kind of things that potentially could get in the way of the immediacy you’re trying to achieve – I’m just wondering, do you enjoy the technical side of filmmaking?
AH: I really try to minimise the amount of technical things you notice. I do have a lot of technical things I deal with because I also edit, and I film and I do a lot of things. In a way, when I film, I feel like I’m already editing, so that’s one thing I notice the most, that I’m busy with, when I film. I’m less busy with the exposure and all that stuff, because I know what I like and I just go for it and it’s a lot more intuitive. But I do feel that I spend a lot of time thinking where I’m going to cut and then I change the position or an angle, because I know I’m going to cut there. But in general, I think that a filmmaker that doesn’t have the capacity to really deal with a lot of technical things should minimise the technicalities, because the most important thing for a filmmaker is to find their voice. And your voice can come across in the most simple ways. It’s just to really find what is it that’s unique to how you experience life or how you feel as a human being or how you look at other people, whatever it is, and that can be done with no technical issues.
I mean, that’s actually a distraction. I know so many filmmakers and I almost, I hate to say it, I don’t want anybody to take it the wrong way as criticism because some people are just wonderfully technical and thank God we have them. But I myself find in my conversations that whenever a filmmaker comes to me and starts asking me a million questions about something technical, I usually don’t think that they are a very deep filmmaker. I think the technical part is exactly what it’s called, it’s technical and the soul of filmmaking, the spirit of filmmaking, the magic of filmmaking is not in the technicalities.
WFTV: You mentioned that you shoot with the edit in mind. It can be very difficult to weave three different stories by a uniting theme, which is what you do in LoveTrue. Could you talk a little bit about how you approached that?
AH: A lot of the scenes and the way it was cut together happened in the editing room. I edited the film for a year, so it was a very long process. I edited both Bombay Beach and this film on my computer in my house and I find that process allows me to not be obligated to huge expenses and a set timeline. I can really search for what I’m trying to say and find it.
It was really important to me as a filmmaker – because I didn’t go to film school and I didn’t start at a young age – to just make films that allow me to find my voice and, you know, create works of art and not think about who’s going to see them and if they’re going to get awards, if they’re going to get distribution. Like all those thoughts were just not in my process and I think that when you make a film like that, there are endless possibilities to find the logic behind how to cut three stories and in this film the thing that was leading me through it, which was very hard to find, was how to progress within the stories. And at the same time, have each story inform the others. So, it was almost group therapy – as a psychodrama is – because it’s three stories, but at the same time all of them are saying something about the others, and some realisations you get from one story you can apply to the other stories et cetera.
Those things happen in the editing room, in the choice you make to begin with, in which stories to follow. I chose to follow three love stories that are very different from each other. They’re not all this romantic love between couples. One is between a couple. Another one is a father and a son who isn’t (biologically) his, and dealing with this idea of cheating, hurt, disappointment and trust. And then the other one also has that sense, but it comes much more from the point of view of a kid that always has to judge and negotiate and understand what happened between their parents. And I think all of us, to a certain degree, grow up with a man and a woman that, in our heads, have almost mythological qualities. The older you get, the more you understand how mythological your parents were to you when you were little. It’s almost frightening to think that you will one day be that mythological creature to somebody else. Because as a kid, there’s such an amount of mystery and things that are untold, that define who you are, more than even the things you do know. So many secrets, so many things for the rest of your life you wonder about sometimes. And it’s not like that in every family, but it was like that in my family for sure and I found it fascinating to watch and participate and try to help somebody that was in a similar situation.
WFTV: And how willing were your characters to embrace the approach that you took with them?
AH: I think they went back and forth. At first they jumped right in and were very willing. Then at moments they realised that it’s a lot deeper water than they intended to swim in and regret it and back off, and then suddenly get inspired or convinced to dive back in. The hardest story was the one about the family because two years after I filmed I discovered some details that made me realise that everything I was filming to that point was very one-sided and then I had to decide how to really tell that story. It played very well into the theme of the film, where we cast each other in our love stories and there’s a certain mask we have to remove and see what’s underneath it. So, in some way everything was destined to be like that but also needed a lot of help in the editing.
Filmmaking is such a modular thing for me. I always see a lot of sides to everything and a lot of complexities and I can justify a lot of arguments and I also don’t necessarily think in a very narrative, linear way. It’s something that I try to reflect in my work and live with in a way that explains who I am instead of fighting it. In film, I’ve found a way to make my own logic.
“I think the technical part is exactly what it’s called, it’s technical and the soul of filmmaking… is not in the technicalities.”
WFTV: Leading on from that, I’m interested to know where your influences come from. Where do you find inspiration?
AH: My influences come from therapy, or the experiences that I had with drugs, and music, and spirituality, and a certain search in general to understand the many contrasts that we live with in life. And also being somebody who grew up in a place that’s very different from where she lives now and feeling always like an outsider; and somebody who looks for love and overcame a certain trauma in her childhood, but also had a lot of love. So, all those things just kind of play together. I don’t think I’m necessarily influenced by a particular filmmaker per se, but I’m definitely very inspired by filmmakers that take freedom and do whatever they want and have a free imagination.
WFTV: I’ve noticed on Twitter that you are very engaged with everything that’s going on politically and I’m just wondering whether you think you might try and tackle any of that in your film work?
A: I think my films are an antidote to everything that’s happening. So, I think my job is to continue to create an antidote. I don’t think I need to create more content in the political realm. I do think that there’s more activism that needs to take place in everybody’s life now and momentum is only growing. But I don’t necessarily think that it has to happen in the form of the filmmaking I do, but in the other initiatives that I’m involved with, like Free The Bid, which is an initiative I did for women in advertising, for them to be considered for every job. I think that women’s representation in general in the workplace, and equality in general are things that are going to balance some of the way our culture is shifting – especially now in the U.S. Conceptually all those things are tied together – racism, sexism to me are one. And so in direct art, I think in my filmmaking, I’m definitely interested in telling more stories with women and portraying women in certain ways. In terms of everyday politics, I just think there’s a huge fight right now for the survival of our species and that it’s urgent, more than we would like to admit.
Alma Har’el’s LoveTrue opened in UK cinemas on Friday 10th February.
Find out information about where it’s screening and book your tickets here.
Watch the trailer…