Wrestling Jerusalem/Aaron Davidman (writer/actor)

Wrestling Jerusalem is an anomaly on many levels. It’s a film made from a play. It’s a one-man show that incorporates seventeen different characters. The seventeen characters represent disparate, often colliding, views of Israel and Palestine: Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, Palestinian, American, male, female. It’s a piece that accepts fragmentation and disunity even as it coheres into a single powerful idea. In fact, actor/writer Aaron Davidman infuses his remarkable solo performance with so much intelligence and skill that Wrestling Jerusalem is for everyone. •Availability: The film; September 12-18 New York City, Symphony Space. The play; Philadelphia Theatre Company, Oct. 18-Nov. 5. Click here for the website. Click here for the Facebook page. Thanks to Diane Blackman, BR Public Relations, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: You portray seventeen characters in the film. One of them is a 25-year-old American Jew who is so overwhelmed on his first visit to Israel that he kisses the tarmac when he steps off the plane. Is that character you?

In the desert. Photo by Cheryl McDonald.

In the desert. Photo by Cheryl McDonald.

AD: The Aaron character is based of course on me and my experiences there. The narrative he  tells in the film could be called a memoir, I suppose, about the first time I came to Israel and fell in love with it. I had an awakening of Jewish identity, which was seminal for me as a person, as an artist, as an American Jew.  For anyone who’s been to Israel, there’s that first time you go. Maybe for some people it’s the only time they go, but it’s quite memorable.

DT: How does that experience influence your personal perspective on the material you’re presenting?

AD: It’s why I made the film. The whole film is my response, because that’s what it takes to try to articulate all the layers of complexity that I feel and the different dimensions that I hold and the different layers of understanding that I have about what Israel is, who I am in relationship to it, and our culture. It’s the whole thing.

 

DT: Who did you make the film for, and is it reaching your intended audience?

AD: I wrote the play initially to try to push the conversation in the American Jewish community. We made the film to reach the widest audience possible nationally and internationally. Dylan Kussman, who directed the film and whose idea it was to turn the play into a film, felt the play was powerful and important and wanted as many people in the world to see it as they could. Between my initial impulse of who would hear this material and the actual release of the film, all kinds of people have seen it. We’ve reached our target audience, that target has grown, and there are concentric circles of communities around the piece that have embraced it or been moved by it or have experienced it.

DT: Who beyond the Jewish American audience?

AD: Other faith-based communities—Christian and Muslim. Communities that identify more in terms of politics or activism. There’s a student cohort, there are interfaith cohorts. We just screened the film for the Muslim-Jewish Solidarity Committee in New York City.

And I’ve been working with Google, who saw the play a while ago and are using the film, followed by a Q&A with me, for executive trainings on complexity; they gather Google executives from all over the world, twenty or thirty of them at a time, and do a three-day training about leadership as it relates to complexity, complexity as it relates to leadership. Then they screen the film, which they see as an embodiment of multiple perspectives in a way that really helps model what they’re trying to teach and coach these executives towards in terms of their leadership.

I also presented the play at a conference for the integral theory community, and they really tapped into the piece. Both this and Google are interesting to me because they’re latching onto the more universal themes of the piece that have to do with multiple perspectives and complexity and the interconnectedness of all these different threads. I’m no integral theory expert, so it would be hard for me to explain it in a sentence, but what I have found really interesting is that I set out to write a piece that would go deep into the Israel-Palestine story, and what’s emerged is a piece that through its specifics has really reached a universal message that people are embracing and are interested in. That’s taught me a lot, because I didn’t set out to do that.

 

DT: Can you talk about the research you did before writing the play. Whom did you talk to? Where did you go? Did you speak with anyone whose perspectives were  so anathema to you that you simply couldn’t include them?

AD: The piece is really one journey that condenses my ten years of traveling to Israel and Palestine and meeting different people and interviewing different people. There’s a lot of writerly license in the journey, of course. The characters in the film are based on people that I met, or they’re composites of people I met. A few are invented based on people I met or knew or read about. I met a range of different people, but I never met any self-described “terrorists.” I never met violent extremists who were trying to convince me that killing everybody would be a really good idea. I never had any of those conversations.

DT: On either side?

AD: That’s right. The truth is that people have asked me, Where are these voices? The answer is that I specifically didn’t  put them in because they would have dominated the piece. If I had eighteen characters and one of them was a terrorist and I humanized the terrorist, all we would be talking about would be the terrorist—we wouldn’t be talking about anything else. Militants get so much play in the airwaves already that I don’t need to feed that line anymore.

My whole goal is to try to get the conversation back to the majority, not the minority, the majority of human beings who grapple and wrestle and who are interested in each other’s dignity, to a certain extent. That’s what I was more interested in. Did I meet people who really pushed my buttons, who really challenged me? Yeah, and I put it in this film, in the argument that I get in with a character I call Daniel, who’s an American medical student who’s an apologist for Hamas. That’s where the Aaron characters draws his line. He gets tripped up and is not a supercompassionate listening person anymore. He gets his buttons pushed, which I think is very human. It was important to put that in the piece.

 

DT: What was the most emotionally difficult segment for you?

AD: Imagine the show. It’s ninety minutes of me on stage. What’s the most emotionally challenging? It’s emotionally challenging just to stay on the horse. To keep the focus and stay on it and be alive and present in every moment. Ideologically, my job as an actor is to be honest and in each of those characters for each of those moments, so if I’m doing my job right, I’m not judging them. One character is not more something than the other. I’m just present in them, and I’ve got to make them truthful and honest and believe them myself. What I was surprised to find was less about what was emotionally challenging for me than how I could see parts of myself in these characters in ways that I never really would have wanted to admit. That I could go there. I think that really says something about who we are as human beings and what our capacities are when we’re under threat or when we’re in extreme situations. That is fascinating and very humbling, and pushes me further to not judge others. In my better moments.

 

In the US. Photo by Tom Kubik.

In the US. Photo by Tom Kubik.

DT: Do you think that your identity as an American Jew gave you the freedom to make this film that an Israeli or a Palestinian wouldn’t have had?

AD: Great question. Of course it’s really hard to know, but I will say that being an outsider does give me some layer of objectivity that an Israeli or a Palestinian just wouldn’t have. It also gives me less in-depth knowledge. I’m more naive, for sure. But maybe that naivete and that distance have allowed me to see the forest for the trees, whereas it’s possible that some Israeli and Palestinians just can’t because they’re in it. I’m not sure that “freedom” would be the word I would use, but I feel like I’ve had a level of objectivity that’s possibly more than a counterpart there might have, though it’s hard to generalize.

 

DT: Much of the material surrounding the film talks about “understanding the other.” Given the current political climate both here in the US and in Israel, do you think that understanding the other is a sufficient tool for social change?

AD: I’m not sure about sufficient, but I would say that it’s essential. It’s sufficient, but that’s not the end. It’s a part of the process. The “other” has now shown up as all kinds of different things. Understanding the neo-Nazi perspective is a different kind of conversation from understanding a disenfranchised or politically oppressed body of people under occupation, for example. There’s dimensionality and layers now to what we mean by the “other,” and there’s an important and interesting conversation about what that means. In this day and age, people say, “If I could just understand the neo-Nazis, then maybe we would have peace.”  Well, no. Of course not. When people are filled with hate and vitriol, there are other tactics that need to be employed. But would it hurt to try to really understand where they’re coming from? No.

I heard a really interesting radio interview with an African-American man.  He’s begun a whole process to convert KKK members to get them to leave the KKK. He goes to neo-Nazi KKK rallies, and they say, “What are you doing here?” He says, “I really understand. I know where you’re coming from, and here’s where it is.” He’s done his research, he knows what their deal is, and they’re completely taken aback. He says, “So they respect me. They don’t like me—I’m black, they don’t really want me—but they respect me and so they have to deal with me.” He’s going right into the lion’s den and encountering these guys and he’s turned people by engaging with them and letting them see his humanity and then challenging them intellectually on what their bullshit is all about. I don’t know much about this guy, but I heard one interview and it blew my mind.

I think that’s a little bit about the question you’re speaking to. There is this question of to what degree are we willing to try to know the other. Knowing the other doesn’t necessarily mean “wherever they’re coming from is all good.” No. Of course not. We’ve got to push back where it’s warranted and actually invest in really knowing where they’re coming from. Just being filled with contempt and thinking they’re a one-dimensional figure that’s easy to write off doesn’t get us anywhere.

DT: You’ve been asked many times how the play has changed you, but my question is somewhat different. After performing the play so many times and leading so many Q&As, how have your goals for the film changed?

In the theater. Photo credit: Barak Shrama.

In the theater. Photo credit: Barak Shrama.

AD: There are goals that are more tactical and real-world, like distribution and things like that, which bear weight on more conceptual goals or goals of intention. We intended to make a movie that would really stir this conversation and get into all kinds of different communities. The fact is that we made a movie that’s a solo performance with one person that’s obviously not a commercial movie. Nobody’s going to make money on this movie, so distribution is a grassroots project.

While we wanted to show the film far and wide all over the world, the pragmatic reality is that it takes a lot of effort and fund-raising and organizing and lobbying to get people to understand what we’re doing and what we’ve actually got. Once people have seen the movie in person in a room on a big screen with a group of people, they’re in, and they’re absorbing the material. If they haven’t seen it yet, I’m not famous, they don’t know me. It’s sort of a head scratcher for them. Why would we show a movie with one guy? What is this thing? From a distributional point of view, the gap between the person who’s seen it and had this amazing experience—or so they tell us—and the person who hasn’t had contact with it yet but who might screen it in their community is wider than we want it to be. And so it’s just a slow process of getting more people to see the movie and bring it into their communities. It’s a real grassroots project, where people who’ve seen it spread the word about it. And it’s growing. We just have to be patient.

Our website is full of press and anecdotes and things and ways to get in touch with us. When people think of film distribution, they think of big movie theaters. We’re screening at some theaters, but we’re also trying to do community screenings: people can arrange for screenings in their communities or on their campuses. Those are picking up steam, and it’s very meaningful.

DT: So people can contact you through the website?

AD: Yes.

DT: How is international distribution?

AD: We have a deal with a Swiss distributor. We’re having the film translated into French, German, and Italian…there will be subtitles of course…and also having it translated into Hebrew and Arabic. We’ll see if we can get some screenings in the Middle East. We’re looking at a screening in Paris sometime in the winter. So step by step. It’s a process.

 

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