Alma Har’el is a director of acclaimed films such as Bombay Beach, LoveTrue, and the short film JellyWolf, a hybrid of story and branded content for CHANEL. She is also the founder of Free The Bid, a non-profit aimed at staffing more women in the Advertising industry. Her latest film, Honey Boy, premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and was acquired by Amazon, with a release date set for November 8th.
You did a short film, JellyWolf, for Chanel, which Elle Magazine described as “the trippiest fashion film ever made.” What inspired you to bring such a unique approach to branding and commercial work?
We can watch whatever we want whenever we want to. Brands spend billions of dollars on advertising that often isn’t getting seen by anyone. We have Ad blockers and pay memberships fees to skip ads. I wanted to do something that will speak to the power of scent and how we as women often tap into scent to relive memories that remind us of who we are. The process of making it with i-D and CHANEL was very unique and it made me see that we can build a new model for content. I’m working to do more of that in the coming year.
Women in the Entertainment industry, and especially in commercial work, have seen very slow progress in terms of getting hired to do that kind of work. With that in mind, Free the Bid has been an incredible success, with some agencies reporting an increase of female directors of nearly 400% in just over two years. What about Free the Bid struck such a nerve with the commercial industry?
We came in and gave a very concrete solution paired with tools while a lot of other initiatives only gave a commitment. Our database can be searched by skillset and we operate in 17 countries around the world. From day one what made Free The Bid different is it identified the structures that keep opportunities for the few and disrupted it. This summer we will relaunch into Film and TV and I can’t wait to see the impact.
Lately, Hollywood has seen a big push to include more stories by and about women. Why do you think it’s important to include women in the commercial/advertising industry as well?
According to a study from last year, 91% of women feel that advertising doesn’t speak to them and 85% of purchasing decisions are made by women… it seems a no brainer that brand’s lives are dependent on including more women behind the camera and in their creative rooms. We are also a brain washed world. So much of what we see in our society and how we treat women and men comes from that. The average consumer is exposed to 4,000-10,000 ads and marketing messages a day and approximately over 90% of those are created by white males. You can see what it does to us as a society. What we prioritize. Think of men too! They are only seeing each other through the eyes of other men… More often than not, it’s Alpha white males. It creates a distorted image all across our culture and we need to change that.
Most of your earlier work is centered in non-fiction – music videos, commercials, and documentaries. What inspired you to start making narrative features?
I never see format as the definition of what I do. Even when I filmed documentaries I told the stories in the best way that I could without worrying about genre definitions. I leave that to film festivals to define. Narratives do allow some freedom of diving into parts of the story a documentary subject might not feel comfortable with and that’s been important to me to explore.
You met Shia LaBeouf on the set of a music video for Sigur Ros, and later worked with him on LoveTrue. You have previously stated that Shia was still in rehab when he sent you the script for Honey Boy. Do you feel that he wrote the script with you in mind as the director?
Yeah absolutely. There is a strong connection between the work we did in LoveTrue where people played scenes with actors who portrayed their younger selves or their fears of their future selves. Shia plays his own father with an actor who plays a version of his younger self. It’s a form of Psychodrama and I wasn’t even aware of how much it shaped what we did until we finished. I think the seeds for Honey Boy were planted in our first meeting together over dinner after Shia saw my first film Bombay Beach. We discovered we are both children of alcoholics and that’s a major theme in Honey Boy.
Much of your work focuses on people who are easily overlooked and often reside in small, off the grid communities – Alaska, Hawaii, the California desert, etc. What draws you to their experiences?
I grew up in an over looked small town in Israel and always felt like an outsider over there. Later on, once I grew up, I found solace in off the grid communities and lived in a few. I also come from a similar social economic background and alcoholism in the family so really these are my people. I live a different life today but my heart is with them.
Your work focuses a lot on deeply personal and often traumatic experiences of your subjects and characters. As a director, how have you been able to integrate yourself into their lives, and how have your subjects come to trust you with their stories?
I think that sharing yourself with your subjects is the key to trust. Knowing that this is for both of us and the alchemy of art will only happen if we give ourselves to it together. I intuitively choose people who are interested in that process and need it. The rest is destiny.
Follow Alma on instagram and twitter, and stay tuned for Honey Boy coming to theaters November 8th, 2019.