My favorite thing to do when a movie ends is to watch the credits for Jewish names. And this ritual continued after I watched Honey Boy. Of course, I knew that Shia LaBeouf, who wrote and starred in the film, was raised Jewish. But then I saw a name I didn’t know: Alma Har’el. Who was this woman with such a distinctly Jewish and Israeli name? And how did I not know about her yet?!
Naturally, I had to learn everything there is to know about the director of Honey Boy, Alma Har’el.
Har’el grew up in Tel Aviv in a Jewish household. She never attended film school or studied film, telling Playboy, “I’m not like one of those people who, at 12 years old, picked up a camera and wanted to be a director. I have wanted to since my 20s, when I started to do video art and watch more films.”
She began her career working as a VJ. In 2005, she collaborated with Israeli group Balkan Beat Box on an 11-minute film titled The Balkan Beat Box 1st show ever – Digital Diary of Alma Har’el. The film is an amalgamation of different dance and music performances, scenes in Israel including walking through the Old City and praying at the Kotel, and various skits.
When Har’el arrived in the US in 2007, she began bartending at a strip club to support herself, which led her to begin creating visuals used at nightclubs and during performances.
“That was a very intense way to understand the power of images and how they affect people in real-time. You’re projecting them around people who a lot of the times are high, and you’re seeing how their faces react,” Har’el explained to Harper’s Bazaar.
This work led Har’el into the world of directing music videos, including videos for “Elephant Gun” by Beirut and “Fjögur píanó” by Sigur Rós. Har’el’s work with Beirut earned her multiple awards and nominations, including Best Directorial Debut at the MTV Video Music Awards and an award of the same name at the Music Video Production Association Awards, and made number 30 on Paste Magazine’s Top 50 Videos of the Decade. Her Sigur Rós video went viral — and starred Shia LaBeouf.
Before Honey Boy, Har’el was perhaps best known for her film Bombay Beach. Har’el filmed Bombay Beach, a film featuring three storylines of protagonists in a rustic town, over the course of just five months. It was nominated for an Independent Spirit “Truer than Fiction” Award, and won Best Feature Documentary at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. She also directed LoveTrue, a documentary that follows three separate real-life relationships and the complications of them, which made its debut at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival to multiple sold-out crowds.
After the recognition, she earned from her debut film, Har’el directed campaigns for mega-brands like Coca-Cola, Stella Artois, and Airbnb. Har’el is described as creating work that “plunges deep into the heart of imagination and creates surreal, dream-like poetic meditations on life.” Hazy timelines, as well as dance-like movements, is a consistent theme in her films. You can watch the trailer for LoveTrue here, which shows some of the dream-like qualities that she often employs.
Har’el’s most recent film, Honey Boy, was released in late 2019 to critical acclaim. Honey Boy, written by Shia LaBeouf, is a heart-wrenching look at LaBeouf’s relationship with his abusive father and his coping with that pain. (You can now watch it on Amazon Prime.) Har’el explained that she “made this film, in many ways, for adult children of alcoholics, like Shia and myself.”
Har’el was drawn to the script because of “the brilliance of [LaBeouf’s] writing and the way the characters were so vivid and real. I was pretty amazed that Shia had so much insight into his father after not speaking to him for seven years and knowing that he was the source of much of his pain. It was incredible that he was capable of bringing that out.”
The film earned Har’el the nomination for Independent Spirit Award for Best Director.
Two years ago I was the single second woman to ever get nominated for a DGA award for commercial directing.
No woman ever won.
I was moved to tears by Greta Gerwig’s speech & @reedmorano
I wished to come back as a film director.
Today I’m nominated with 2 women I adore. pic.twitter.com/Eg174reufT
— Alma Har'el🌪 (@Almaharel) January 7, 2020
But Har’el isn’t just an amazing director — she is working to fight gender bias in the advertisement industry. In 2016, she founded Free The Bid, an initiative created to urge production companies to include more women in their rosters. Free The Bid has been successful in its endeavors and counts AT&T, eBay, and Visa as some of its earliest supporters. HP, another supporter, reported going from having 0% female directors to 59% within the 18 months since it adopted the initiative.
In addition to Free The Bid, Har’el also launched Free the Work in October. An expansion of Free the Bid, it acts as a talent discovery database that seeks to aid studios in finding underrepresented creators such as writers, editors, and filmmakers. When asked why she created Free the Work, Har’el said, “We needed a tool that would really make it impossible for people to say that they can’t find diverse talent.” Free the Work is now in 20 (!!) countries and is used by stars such as Tracee Ellis Ross, Lena Waithe, Jill Soloway, Lucas Hedges, and Rachel Morrison.
Recently, Har’el called out the Golden Globes for failing to nominate a single female director or screenwriter. She proposed to have gendered categories in order to reach parity, similar to how there are separate categories for actors and actresses. “It’s obvious [the Globes] have no awareness at all,” Har’el said. “They’re immersed in this perpetuated activity of basking in male excellence and overseeing this whole new world we’re trying to build with new voices of women and people of color being part of the conversation.” Har’el is trying to break the glass ceiling because she herself feels the weight of it.
When the 2020 Oscar nominations came out, again without a single woman nominated for Best Director, Har’el continued to speak out, saying, “The status quo relies on women & underrepresented filmmakers continuing to play a game they can’t win.” She went on to say, “Let 2019 be the year that showed you how systemic are racism & misogyny in the film industry. They hold each other’s hands in a perpetuated dance protected by the structures of power. Support those who fight for change by celebrating the filmmakers that history writes out.” She also penned a powerful op-ed about the lack of women in the Best Director category, advocating that the Academy should introduce “Best Female Director” and “Best Male Director” categories instead.
Thank you to everyone that’s speaking up about today’s nominations.
The status quo relies on women & underrepresented filmmakers continuing to play a game they can’t win.
Change the game. pic.twitter.com/Bdb0HjyZNK
— Alma Har'el🌪 (@Almaharel) January 13, 2020
One last thing to know about Alma Har’el? She is pretty great at Twitter.
Please… I stand on the shoulders of those who frizzed before me. https://t.co/Tvmh3h4Aly
— Alma Har'el🌪 (@Almaharel) January 4, 2020
Header Image of Alma Har’el by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for HFA.