Alma Har’el is an Israeli-American film-maker whose luscious, dreamy stories sit in an unexplored space between imagination and reality; her alternative take at documentary making has inspired a film that shows CHANEL Nº5 L'EAU as a conduit to experiencing visions. Steeped in the senses, her untethered journeys of light, music and dance are saturated with richness and texture. JellyWolf, her film for The Fifth Sense, takes place in a world where reality is blurred with fantasy, where the abstract becomes tangible experience, where saturated colours sit with expansive spaces and intimate close ups: A young woman enters an occultist shop on a mundane strip mall in LA wanting to undergo a visionary experience – sneezing her way into another world, one inhabited with palpable manifestations of lemons, roses and burnt wood, the notes of CHANEL Nº5 L'EAU.
In the film we are invited to see the girl in the film’s vision of CHANEL Nº5 L'EAU, which is a similar experience to synaesthesia… The experience the girl is buying in the store is inspired by synaesthesia. It’s the idea that certain scents can evoke images, and that our senses cross paths. People who have synaesthesia experience many things, for instance sounds as colour and scents as images. My friend Dexter told me one night over dinner that she always experienced the words “white house” as a cake she can taste and seen days of the week as a circle suspended in the air. When I told her about the condition suddenly everything made sense to her; it’s a really dope condition, your senses take creative licence with reality.
Was it instinctive to you to tell a story this way? I love thinking in images and in subconscious logic. I can also lucid dream and to me that's the ultimate directing challenge. You need to think fast and direct the dream while not alarming your mind and causing yourself to wake up. You can do incredible things. You can turn emotions into liquid and taste them or make gender experiments on yourself. It feels very real. But the challenge on this project was to explain my logic and make it coherent in the context of The Fifth Sense.
To what extent is scent important to you, and in your work? I use scent a lot in order to remember things or states of mind. If you smell something at a certain moment it can create a map in your brain to a very complex state of being and a full sensory memory. I know actors that do that too. They have certain scents that remind them of something positive or traumatic in their past and they smell it before they need to bring those emotions to the screen.
The senses are a very direct path to your intuition and to remembering what moves you and feels truthful to you
My generation is one of the most interesting generations... we grew up in a relatively analogue world then got fully immersed into a digital world, so we've experienced both our senses and our digital consciousness as part of our identity
As a director do you think you experience senses in a different way from other people? As a director you need to be in tune with your senses because they're a direct path to your intuition and to remembering what moves you and feels truthful to you. I can always tell when I see directors that started out connected to their emotional core and have somehow drifted into doing what they "think" is cool or what they think people expect of them. It's very easy to fall into that. Your senses can help get you grounded and remember yourself.
Is there a particular sense that is more important to your work than the others? It really depends on the project. Lately I've been actually trying to incorporate more of them by painting some of my concepts so they're not just on the computer. I think my generation is one of the most interesting generations because we grew up in a relatively analogue world then got fully immersed into a digital world in our teens and our 20s, so we've experienced both our senses and our digital consciousness as part of our identity. The prior generations were thrusted into the digital world late in life and the next ones were born into a completely digital world. I really cherish that intersection and attribute a lot of my sensibilities to it. I'm totally digital and fragmented but I have a romantic analog heart.
You didn't go to film school – in what ways has this been advantageous? It made it possible for me to discover my voice without anyone telling me what's right and wrong. I didn't have to negotiate who I am with teachers who had nothing to do with my life and who I am. I was released from the Israeli army on the fault of "Not being able to take orders" and I see myself as a soldier of cinema by choice. Not going to film school allowed me to keep an uncensored and wild connection to art. I stay away from anyone that thinks they know everything. I like to respect history and people's work and learn from them without feeling like there's only one answer to anything.
Do you feel that learning your craft organically gave you a freedom to control the process your way? Absolutely. But process is something that always changes for me, especially for instance, on a project like this, which has one leg rooted in my ideas and the other in CHANEL’s long heritage. I think that every step of what I learn informs the next one by necessity. I hardly ever learn something I don't need. It's something I used to be ashamed of because I always failed at school on almost every exam and didn't really graduate high school. I have a lot of learning disabilities but over the years I learned to appreciate the constraints of what information my brain responds to and what it glosses over.
How did growing up in Israel influence the way you shape a narrative? Israel is a place full of contrasts. I think it made me see the value of juxtaposition when it comes to capturing reality.
Is this partly why words aren't the main currency in a lot of your work? Yes. Because the most important things in life can not be said in words.
Not going to film school made it possible for me to discover my voice without anyone telling me what's right and wrong
What is the connection you feel when you are looking for a story or an idea? Being an immigrant in America and growing up in the middle east I'm always more attracted to stories of people who struggle and fight for their identity and their right to love and be loved.
I'm also interested in the idea that we're all wearing a mask biologically. It's such a symbolic set up. I see it as if we have our brain behind a skull and our face is the mask that covers it. So I'm interested in stories that allow us to recognize our mask and our story so we can tread more lightly with our identity and see each other in a more loving light. There's so many stories that only try to glorify the mask. I think that our collective imagination and our dreams can liberate us so I try to bend and shift perceptions of the psyche and reality.
How do you find your stories and the people you feature? Destiny is a great casting director. In my two films [2011's Bombay Beach and 2017’s LoveTrue] I've made sure to get lost just enough to find the people I was looking for. I physically have to be in the place and walk around or drive around until I meet them. It is very similar to falling in love only the kind of love you feel through the camera has its own rules of attraction.
Soft as Jelly, Wild as a Wolf
It's time to glow in the dark together
Do you find that this experience happens outside of you looking for it. Yeah. The day after the inauguration I went to the Women's March and got lost. My phone's battery died from the cold temperature, I was wondering through the crowd trying to figure out how to get to the backstage area. Suddenly a few women started singing around me. I took out my phone in frustration and it suddenly sprung to life... As I filmed them I got overwhelmed with emotions by their lyrics... "I can't keep quiet...". I started to cry and walked away. Later that night I uploaded the video on the plane back to LA and in the next three days it got 15 million views – women all around the world called it the Women's March anthem. I feel like that's a very condensed version of what happened to me on both of my films. Getting lost, finding people that touch me deeply and then telling their story so they can connect to people who need to hear them.
Victory who is the street musician who sings in my new film LoveTrue got signed with Jay Z’s label Roc Nation after he heard her in my film and I think her music will deliver a very important message to many people.
If I'm not invested and attracted to the people I film in an emotional and spiritual way it's very hard for me to film them. My work has to be rooted in love and kinship. Sometimes I wish it could have been other wise but it can't.
Your work has been noted as an innovative fresh take on documentary work – because of the way you weave in flashbacks, imagined scenes, and work with actors. How did this become the way you chose to tell a story? It just grew organically out of being interested in all of the above and not putting any restrictions on my filmmaking. When Bombay Beach came out [in 2011] it was part of a defining moment in a new dawn of documentary filmmaking. I was using choreographed dance to tell three stories of people from the poorest county in California that surrounds the Salton Sea. They weren't dancers or had anything to do with dance. A year earlier a film called The Arbor by Cleo Barnard used lip synced sound and actors to tell the [tragic] story of the late playwright Andrea Dunbar. There were many more creatively liberating films like that and now we see how important it was because that's the direction documentary filmmaking took. At the time there was a big discussion about the legitimacy of telling real stories like that: "The form" was bothering some people and making them feel cheated because they weren't judging the truthfulness of the filmmakers but the form of their filmmaking, the documentary journalistic form of talking heads and supposedly "fly on the wall" approach was more important to them then the intentions of the filmmaker and the so called poetic truth the films carried.
What was your response to that? I was saying forget the fly on the wall, I'm the elephant in the room – and what I mean by that is that we can't pretend we're not making a movie and if we're going to make one: I want to make it artistic and with the awareness and artistic collaboration of the people I'm filming. It is up to the viewer to recognise what he or she is consuming; they can't do it based on "form" anymore but based on the source that's giving it to them. The truth is, that it has always been like that... Most documentaries are manipulated and so are news stories but now everyone can make a film and report news so we can see the intentions are what matters. It's important to me to tell stories like this because I want to urge the viewer to confront the suspension of disbelief and his idea of truth. I also want to urge my subjects to take ownership of their stories.
I wanted to capture a sense of wonder that scent holds and a feminine identity that isn't ties to a male gaze
I can lucid dream and to me that's the ultimate directing challenge. You need to think fast and direct the dream while not alarming your mind and causing yourself to wake up
Music is obviously a key part of your film making process – do you have music in mind when you are directing or does it come after? How do you make the music and the image gel? My musician friends are a big part of everything I do and I try to involve them as early as possible. Sometimes I get obsessed with a musician I don't know and feel only they can do the music to something. When I directed LoveTrue I looked for Flying Lotus for a year until I got connected to him. I tried so many things that didn't work and once he did the music everything fell into place. My early work with moving images was as a VJ, I used to make video art and cut loops of videos then play them on stage in music concerts and clubs along side musicians. I wanted to be in a band but for my instrument to be a moving image. I think those years of playing images live in front of an audience gave me a special connection to the musical nature of images.
Your work combines the ordinary with fantasy, what is your earliest memory of this love of juxtaposition? I remember being three years old in Tel Aviv and seeing my father dancing naked in my mother's skin coloured pantyhose on the living room table. He was very manly and very drunk, the music was loud, my mom and me were laughing and cheering for him. As you can imagine it wasn't always laughter but moments like that, as dysfunctional they might sound, brought a lot of magic and openness into my life. After you deal with all the pain from your childhood the magic stays with you. When I was 12 I asked him to do it again and filmed him this time. It was probably the first thing I ever filmed.
So that image has really stayed with you… I guess so because my first film had grown men dancing in it. And at least two of them were very drunk. That's the therapeutic beauty of art... I never thought about that connection until this moment.
Finally, what would you like The Fifth Sense viewers to feel while they watch your work? This film is a trippy little love letter to women. I wanted to capture a sense of wonder that scent holds and a liberated feminine identity that develops from getting connected to what scares you. I think the one thing that I like most about my work is that it speaks to people that are my kindred spirits. You meet someone miles away from where you grew up and they experienced something deep from your work without you ever talking to each other, or having any shared experience. That's dope to me. But at the end of the day I do my work because I have to. There's nothing else I can do that keeps me as sane and happy.
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