Thursday, February 16, 2012

I’ve been negligent with this blog these past weeks; it’s not from a lack of thoughts and experiences…actually, it’s the opposite.

Chen Alon of Combatants for Peace recently said this to me in a conversation about political theatre vs. personal narrative theatre: "Aesthetics are Ethics." It's taken a few weeks for the truth of this statement to really sink in.

The first interviews we collected here were with disabled veterans of an older generation; most of their stories came from wars fought in 1967 or 1973, and emphasized their journey of overcoming physical and emotional trauma after combat. Text collected about the 2006 Lebanese war had a similar focus, so the script began to take a fairly clear narrative shape. Then I began talking to another crop of ex-fighters, those who had served in the Occupied Territories and had later joined Combatants for Peace and Breaking the Silence--organizations with a clear political ethos regarding the very specific (and hugely polemic) issue of the occupation and Israel-Palestine. I realized, hearing these new stories, that I didn't have enough material at that point to create a piece exploring this new theme in a coherent or useful way. Throwing something as sensitive as a personal trauma narrative up against the full judgement of deeply-held political opinions without the time nor the in-depth dialogue to find a common ground in the felt like the wrong thing to do at the time. It felt like a different piece. And personally, I struggled with my omissions, with what to include and what not to. Not least of all because of my time in Beirut, of my conversations with friends who had spent a great deal of time in the West Bank, because I knew the urgency of these narratives, and what "IDF" symbolizes to so many. I knew that many people would find it difficult to understand that I had compiled a full-length script about the experiences of IDF soldiers, and not mentioned Palestine or the occupation even once. But at the end of the day, it wasn't the story I was here to tell. Not this time around. To tell it, to even attempt to, would take more time, more care, more nuance. And this time I was here to listen to the guys at Beit Halochem, and to understand and present their stories.

Here's a clip of the actors seeing the vets (whose stories they had rehearsed and embodied) for the first time as they walk and wheel their way into the hall for the reading at Beit Halochem. Orna, who knows the vets from the interviews, runs introductions for the cast: "That's Uzi there, talking to Raffi; and Itsik has just come in behind them..."

The feedback after the reading is predictably mixed. An old vet wonders why we didn't turn the microphones up louder, and another one asks us to include more stories of "fallen heroes". A left-wing activist condemns the piece as "nihilistic," because it doesn't show a way out of the culture of militarism; she wants us to show "what's happening now, in Hebron." Roni, our security guard friend from the very first day is moved to tears. A man whose name I never caught spends ten minutes telling us that we have shown him an understanding of trauma that "no one, not even my wife, can have," and thanks us profusely, parting with "God bless you."

Some of the other feedback is less emotive. Raffi, in his matter-of-fact manner tells us that the way we presented his story of his Judo team’s visit to a Swedish bar was very effective, and that he thought the narrating actor should actually show the bit where Raffi takes out his prosthetic eyes. “We did! We did take it out!” the cast replies, giggling. Of course Raffi didn’t actually get to see this slapstick bit. “Good. good.” He’s satisfied.

"Aesthetics are ethics" is just the artist's way of saying "the personal is political." Especially in this country. One cannot tell a "whole story," because no such thing exists. Every choice carries the full weight, the full responsibility of your conscious decision to put your focus in one place instead of in another. The script, the stories I include, this blog, the moments I share, the images I post...each one of those things is an aesthetic choice with ethical implications. Which in a place like Israel can be so confusing that it locks you into a paralysis of integrity.

In the past three weeks I discussed "Theatre Ethnography" over coffee with Chen; I planted Sabras plants in the tiny village of Susya in Area C of the West Bank to protest a demolition order on the lone elementary school there; I went to a 150-strong Anglo-Israeli Shabbat dinner celebration in Jerusalem, and listened to a Jewish a cappella troupe; I went to a feminist concert in response to the proposition of recent gender-specific religious laws; I spent the night at a kibbutz; I rehearsed; I went to a crafts fair; I went pubbing...and I didn't write about any of it. I think I'm still finding the story.

I think I'm going to have to come back to Israel.