Since WRESTLING JERUSALEM (the play) premiered in San Francisco in 2014 and then the film in 2016, audiences have asked "Have you shown it in Israel? What do they think?”For four years I’ve had to answer, “We haven’t yet, and we’re working on it.” Well, now we have, and here’s the answer to how Israelis, in Israel, responded to the film:
Their responses were just as wide-ranging as those of audiences in North America. However, there are two main themes that emerged that are unique to Israel. The first: “It’s a wonderful film, very moving, but…we didn’t learn anything new. We know all these stories, all these characters, we live with them every day.” In effect, “it’s very nice, but what’s the point?” The second is a rebuttal to the first: “Actually, we don’t know all these stories. Yes, we may think we know the facts, but Aaron, as an outsider you have brought us these stories we think we know, but you have allowed us to hear them with fresh ears. You are more curious than we are. We don’t go to Ramallah, like you did. We don’t go through the check-points, like you have. We don’t listen to these characters and feel for them. It’s actually important that you’ve come and it helps us see ourselves again.”
This argument over the value of the film to Israeli society is notable. The first comment about the film we received was from a woman in the back of the theatre in Tel Aviv. Writer, Sarah Tutle-Singer, (Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered)who was moderating the post-screening discussion, had just begun to reflect on the film when the woman stood up, interrupting Sarah, and shouted, in Hebrew, “I can’t stay but I have to tell you this is the most amazing film I’ve ever seen, everyone in Israel should see this film!” and then hustled out. Another gentleman was not so sure, “I’m depressed at the end of this film. You’ve shown us all these stories and like the metaphor you use of the broken shards, we’re broken, and all we have is the fragments. I find that very depressing.” Sarah quickly responded, “But beauty and hope is in our brokenness. Like the Japanese Art of Broken Things. They take broken pottery and they don’t throw it away, they piece it back together with gold so you can see the cracks and it becomes more beautiful. This film, like all of us here in Israel, holds the brokenness and honors it, and yes it’s depressing, but it’s also beautiful and hopeful. Both are true.” And so the dialectic conversations amidst Israelis about our film continued...
We were disappointed not to have screened the film in the West Bank. Discussions for a screening in Ramallah faded as the violence in Gaza erupted just before our arrival. But some very interested audience members from theThe Parents Circle and Combatants for Peacetalked with us after seeing the film and they are working on arranging some screenings in Ramallah, so we’re hopeful that will still happen.
It was wonderful to bring the film back to the land where people are living it every day. Context is so important to me as a storyteller. And to screen the film within the context of the narratives of Israel/Palestine was powerful. The Tel Aviv and Haifa screenings felt palpably successful. The room was charged. There was excitement in the conversations. The Jerusalem audience felt subdued. The responses more considered, even tepid. I asked Sara Schwartz Geller afterwards, “How did it go? I can’t tell.” She said, “It was wonderful. An audience in Jerusalem is likely to be more conservative. They are going to be less enthusiastic, but these are the people that need to see the film. If it’s difficult for them, if the film is pushing their edge and making them consider things, that’s what we want. And you’re not necessarily going to feel that they love you.” Ah. Yes. Sara. Well said.
The vulnerability I felt at every screening was formidable. The film is a personal account. My experience of longing and learning and listening, deep into this fractured place. And I left the next day feeling the work was received by the hearts and minds of the people who live there. I can't ask for more than that.
If you're interested in sitting in on the conversations we had in Israel, we will be posting video of those conversations soon. Stay tuned.
I am deeply proud of everyone who worked on and supported this project: My directors Michael John Garcés and Dylan Kussman,whose visions and talents are laced throughout the whole piece; producer Sara Schwartz Geller who worked tirelessly on The Empathy Tour for more than a year; all the artists who worked on the project from the beginning, including the theatre design team, Allen Willner, Nephelie Andonyadis, Stacey Printz and Bruno Louchouarn; filmmakers Nicole Whitaker, Erik Andersen and the entire film crew; stage manager/tech director Wolfgang Wachalovsky who traveled near and far with me; and our executive producers without whose generous support and faith in our project we would have not been able to make the film, Jeannie Blaustein & Peter Bokor, Dan Cohn & Lynn Brinton, Maris Meyerson, Roger Low, and Diane Philips; and Ilana and Chuck Ratner who got the ball rolling for the Israel tour; and the many, many other contributors who gave significantly because they too believed in the value of sharing these stories and staying open to the humanity of the “other.” My wife, Sarana deserves a special mention as well, as she is simply the best traveling companion and support a person could ask for.
What happens with the film now? We’re pleased to announce that we have a distribution deal with IndieCan, an independent distribution company based in Toronto. They are working on preparing the film for video-on-demand and international distribution. People will be able to see the film on pay-per-view and/or subscription come next fall. More on that when it’s available.
DVDs are still available on our website for contributions that will help us fund the technical preparations for this last phase.
What’s next for me? I’m writing a new play about guns in America. I started my research last fall and I have collected interviews from all over the country. I’ll be writing the play this summer. Like WRESTLING JERUSALEM, it will be a solo performance with multiple characters covering this topic. Michael John Garcés is directing. We’ll be showing work-in-progress performances next February at Shotgun Players in Berkeley, in preparations for the world premiere at Mosaic Theatre of DC in April, 2019.
But since I can’t seem to stray too far from the Israel/Palestine story, this fall I’m playing the role of Yossi Beilin in Marin Theatre Company’s production of the Tony winning play, OSLO. My mentor and colleague from Traveling Jewish Theatre, Corey Fischer, is also in the production, along with a stellar company of Bay Area actors.
Keep wrestling. See you soon. Stay in touch.