Tuesday, January 24, 2012

I honestly thought I’d never say this, but I think I’m turning into a verbatim theatre junkie.

In 2010 I read Anna Deavere Smith’s pioneering work of documentary theatre, Fires in the Mirror, and was so struck by this quote in her prologue that I wrote it down for safekeeping:

I had been trained in the tradition of acting called “psychological realism”. A basic tenet of psychological realism is that characters live inside of you and that you create a lifelike portrayal of the character through a process of realizing your own similarity to the character. When I later became a teacher of acting, I began to become more and more troubled by the self-oriented method. I began to look for ways to engage my students in putting themselves in other people’s shoes. This went against the grain of psychological realism tradition, which was to get the character to walk in the actor’s shoes. It became less and less interesting intellectually to bring the dramatic literature of the world into a classroom of people in their late teens and twenties, and to explore it within the framework of their real lives. Aesthetically it seemed limited, because most of the time the characters all sounded the same. Most characters spoke somewhere inside the rhythmic range of the students. More troubling was that this method left an important bridge out of acting. The spirit of acting is the travel from the self to the other. This “self-based” method seemed to come to a spiritual halt. It saw the self as the ultimate home of the character. To me, the search for character is constantly in motion. It is a quest that moves back and forth between the self and the other.

Now, two years later, I’m finally starting to glimpse the truth of Deavere Smith’s words in action. Meeting with the actors individually to go over the interviews we’ve collected, I’m finding that my greatest handicap here—my inability to understand Hebrew—is surprisingly proving to be an enormous asset when it comes to the performers and their process. Orna gets on stage to read the words of “Yossi” during our first rehearsal and inhabits the character of the hardened, charismatic older man with surprising grace and ease. But of course—she met Yossi, spent several hours recording his words, and then several more hours playing them back and typing them down in 3- or 4- second segments. This may technically be her first reading of the text, but it’s certainly not “cold.”

Yehuda, a young professional actor and—like many Israeli men—an ex-soldier who has seen his own fair share of danger and conflict, is in Orna’s kitchen transcribing our interview with “Shaul,” an ex-combatant who was blinded when he stepped on a landmine during the 6 days’ war in 1967. Yehuda hunkers down over his computer, listening again and again to the same 5-second clip from an interview, like a private investigator trying to deduce a kidnapper’s location from the background noise of a taped phone call. “He has a stop here, where he cannot remember what he was saying, and he is silent for a long time, half a minute. I want to know…why is there the block at this moment?”

I know what Yehuda is feeling. I remember being fascinated by a particularly compelling interview in Lebanon where an ex-fighter spoke of a time when, after retrieving the corpse of a comrade who had been horrifically mutilated, he had made the decision that he and a small group under his command would capture enemy fighters and pour cement over their bodies, burying them alive. The action was never followed through—an older and wiser commanding officer cottoned on to their plans and sent them all on a made-up mission, and then talked them down after they had released some steam. But the simple fact that he had dreamed up this torture and intended to follow through with it was enough to sit heavy on the ex-fighter’s conscience—it scared him how close he himself had been to losing his humanity and succumbing to the barbarity of war. What was amazing about the interview was that each time the decision to dig holes and prepare the cement was mentioned, it was accompanied by a barely perceptible verbal tic: in assigning responsibility for the decision, the word ‘we’ would first be used, followed by a short stutter, and then replaced quickly with ‘I’, like so: “…but I’m telling to you what we— what I decided…” Transcribing the interview, I was amazed at how much was revealed in the tiny self-corrections. These few short syllables contained over 20 years of internal struggle as to where the final responsibility for the cement idea would be placed—in the self, or in the hands of the collective.

I watch Yehuda furiously scribbling a string of the incomprehensible back-stroking Hebrew letters on his notepad. It takes us over 2 hours to transcribe and translate just under three minutes of text. But this isn’t time wasted; Yehuda holds more passion for each sentence than I have ever seen in any other actor on his first day with a script. In almost a decade of directing theater, this is quite possibly the best table-working session that I’ve ever had.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

As a teenager, for a stint, I was obsessed with lucid dreams. There’s an exercise I used to do, in the half-hour of no-man’s-land between waking and sleep; a visualization game meant to strengthen whatever muscle we use in conscious dreaming. Picture the room you are in. Try to conjure up every detail, remembering, eyes shut, exactly where everything is, in relation to you. Then, once you’ve pulled up a clear picture, imagine yourself sleeping—or standing—in a different part of the same room. Switch the perspective.

It sounds relatively easy to do, but the brain’s instinctive ability to orient itself accurately in space makes visualizing any viewpoint other than our “real” one incredibly difficult to do. Try it. You’ll notice that, after a bit of struggle, there’s a jolting moment when you “click” in to the new perspective. Suddenly something gives, and you just see it.

Sunday night filmmaker Yariv Mozer meets up with me at the Olive café, to give me a copy of his feature documentary, “My First War,” and to answer any questions I might have about his work. Yariv’s sister-in-law has just had a baby this morning, and he’s headed to Holland for post-production on his next film tomorrow, yet he finds a full hour between hospital visits and packing, just to sit with me.

Yariv’s film, shot while he was actively fighting in the 2006 Lebanese war, follows 5 combatants and one Israeli journalist during and after the conflict. Its reception has been hugely varied depending on the audience. Many critics, especially internationally, see an implicit anti-war message in the film, as the traumatic effects of battle on the soldiers as well as their own misgivings about the conflict are brought to light. Others see its humanization of the IDF combatants as insidiously pushing a pro-Israeli agenda; while within the country, Yariv has been criticized for “exposing” Israel and betraying the country by “showing dissent and weakness.”

“And all of this is in response to the same film!” he says with a gentle smile. I think of my Mleeta blog fiasco and tell him I know the feeling. We spend our time together swapping stories, talking about the limitations and freedoms of our respective mediums, and sharing thoughts on where we hope to take things next. Yariv’s dream, he tells me, is to get into the same room with a Hezbolla fighter, to “discuss things,” on camera. I tell him “Good luck with that.”

The next evening I pop Yariv’s DVD into my computer and listen as his earnest narration guides us through the dirt roads linking Tel Aviv to the Northern border. As the landscape becomes pastoral and the plum trees pull into sight, I start to feel a displaced familiarity;
I’ve seen this landscape before…driving with my friend Karim, along the other side of the fence. The uneasy recognition continues as Yariv guides us through orchards, tents, and the tiny boxlike “war room” where men sit crouched together, tensely barking coordinates as incoming missiles explode in the woods around them. But it is when I see footage of a tank—an establishing shot locating it clearly amidst the recognizable fruit trees before cutting away to a conversation with the loader inside—that the world goes “click.” In a jolting flash, I’m suddenly seeing the exact same—terrifying—piece of machinery that sat ominously in the distance across Fatima’s Gate just 2 months ago. But now I’m inside of it, with my new friend Yariv.

I don’t think I can say much about that moment, except that it was accompanied with an overwhelming sense of sadness. No anger, no judgment, certainly no pat idea or clever epiphany about the “nature of things.” Just a simultaneous connection to two views of one thing that left me with an incredible and sustaining sadness.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

There is a clumsy grace in naiveté. I booked an itinerary that would land me in Israel off the back of having just spent 3 months in Beirut, before I had any real idea of what that would stir up for me—socially, emotionally, and even just logistically. I am grateful for my own lack of foresight and the juxtapositions it has left me to grapple with; I have unwittingly stumbled my way into the very heart of this project.

There was a tentative stiffness to my arrival, which inevitably bled into my first conversations. I was, in some sense, bracing myself for Israel. Israel, very understandably, seemed to be bracing itself for me. Orna and I sent out a batch of e-mails a while ago outlining the project and calling for soldiers and ex-soldiers interested in sharing interviews for a theatre piece about their experiences. There was very little response. Once here, she informed me that the reason one of her friends didn’t reply was that he saw “London-based” and “Soldier” in the same sentence and expected me to be doing a BBC 4 exposé on the mistreatment of Palestinians. The true insidiousness of the word “agenda” is beginning to become apparent to me—I can imagine nothing worse than openly sharing my own experiences, hopes, struggles, and pain with someone in a spirit of trust, and then having those words be twisted and used as evidence against me. There’s an elephant in the room; in order to break the ice, there needs to be some kind of dance so that we all know roughly where it’s standing.

Sabine—true to form—has been accelerating this process with her trademark affectionate ribbing, posting things like “How are things in the Occupied Land?” on my facebook wall, leaving me feeling like a gangly adolescent being kissed goodbye by mum on the first day of school (“Mommm! Not in front of my new friends!”). This of course forces the ice-breaking conversations that I need to be having anyways. Just like in Beirut, these conversations, I realize, are mostly for my benefit: I am grappling with new questions, new ideas, a new elephant in a new room. Imagine that elephant living in your home—every new visitor will vigorously bombard you with questions about its diet, its habits, its care…or (even worse) want to share with you everything they ever learned about elephants on the internet. I am reminded of a Salvadorian-American friend who once told me, “I know it’s coming from a good place, but I hate it when my white friends come to me to process their ‘white privilege’ or ‘racism in America.’ It might be the first time you’ve had this conversation, but I’m forced to have it with my lefty white friends all the time. It’s exhausting.” I can imagine just how exhausting, and I’m impressed by Orna’s patience as she narrates her own experiences and perceptions of the “situation” for what I imagine is the umpteen billionth time.

On Monday Orna and I approach the gates of Beit Halochem (House of the Warrior), an activities center for disabled veterans and their families. We explain our project to a lean security guard, who tells us we can’t go past the gates, but are welcome to talk to soldiers going in and out of the center. His aged, grizzled face carried the scars of a ferocious life, and I’m slightly terrified of him. Orna and I chat for a while with a younger veteran on his way to a chess class, and after only a few minutes of this the subject of PTSD comes up, and the once-stern security guard, “Roni” lights up like a disco ball. He launches into a series of stories about war buddies, veterans from the center, huge men, strong men, “gorillas,” childhood best friends reduced to incapable inverts, their lives destroyed by trauma. He is so happy we have come, he says, because these stories need to be told. The anecdotes and descriptions spill from him in a vigorous stream, as unending and vivid as the love that he clearly carries for the men they refer to. Roni, to steal a phrase he used to describe a buddy, “has a heart 80 times too big for his body.” When he speaks, his eyes fill with a youthful light and the skin around them is flushed pink with excitement. Every time a club member passes the guard kiosk, he pauses to introduce us (“This is Daniel. He’s a king, a king!”), excuses himself to exchange a few words, and then is right back into his narration. We stay this way with Roni—nodding, laughing, listening—for a full two hours. He will meet with us during the week, he says, to record the text officially. In the meantime, he escorts us into the center (the rules, apparently, have changed), to chat with one of the blind vets who talked with us on the way in, and set up a time to meet.

What is amazing about this exchange is that it’s the first conversation here that I’ve had about war where politics haven’t come up at all. The most fundamental question between us is not, “where do you stand on the situation.” In fact, even attempting to examine that question could launch us into a minefield of hot topics and sore spots, an obstacle course blocking the way to shared understanding. The fundamental question here is: “do you value my experiences, and respect me as a human being.” Roni, with his gleeful appreciation of serendipity and his passionate concern for his friends, makes it very easy for me to answer that question with: “Definitely, yes.”