Aaron Davidman’s one man show, Wrestling Jerusalem, unpacks the multiple perspectives that each of us must have to overcome strife, oppression, and violence
With so much strife in this world, it’s hard to imagine that so much of it could be solved with by using extra cognitive energy to see the other side’s perspective. It’s hard to imagine that the majority of these issues stem from a lack of seeing the other side’s view. That seems to be the catalyst to many problematic dilemmas, and one that makes any matter all the worse.
It takes a great deal of confidence, self-esteem, and wherewithal to demonstrate that sense of perspectival multiplicity. To see the other viewpoint, it requires a great deal of patience, one that few could ever fathom summoning to do. It’s a humanist experience that is as eye-opening as it is simple–just see the other side, and you’ll see the actions of your side as well.
It’s a thought experiment that Aaron Davidman embodies in his one-man show-cum-film Wrestling Jerusalem. Showcasing a multitude of perspectives, ranging from Palestinian cafe dwellers to Israeli rabbis, Davidman embodies the viewpoints of nearly all sides of the complex situation in Israel and Palestine. Now, Davidman has translated his long touring show for the silver screen, blending the nature of theater and cinema into one breathtaking experience. Star Davidman sat down with the Knockturnal to discuss changing mediums, taking on his multiple perspectives, and developing the film for years. Check out what he had to say below.
This was originally a one man show that you did Off-Broadway. I was wondering, how did the experience change when you translated it onto film?
Aaron Davidman: So, the play is a pretty obviously an intense 90-minute performance, and I’m going from character to character. The ability to explore subtlety on stage is much more challenging than on film. So, on one level, the film was—from an acting point of view—about wanting to explore subtlety and nuance close-up. And so, the director, Dylan Kussman, and I really looked for those moments. One of the reasons he wanted to make the film was so that he could explore the subtlety of the close-up as well as of the opposite of it, the wide shot. The expanse of the wide shot could capture some of the really epic spiritual dimensions of the work as well as the dimensions of land, scenes about land and space. It worked in the big wide sweeping shots, and then the more intimate ones as well. It was also useful in the personal, internal shots, the close-up shots. The sort of behind-the-eyes, that was what Dylan wanted to explore filmically as well. I’m on stage, so you’re with me in the room, and the energy of connecting with the audience propels the performance forward, and there’s plenty of peaks and valleys and different shapes within that live performance. The film was able to really explore these two other extremes in a way that cinema can only do. And that’s why Dylan didn’t just want to film the play as a live HD show, you know.
Right, something that would look like it was Death of a Salesman. But this was a lot more intimate.
Aaron: We wanted to make cinema! We wanted to make cinema while also capturing a flavor of the stage. A third of the piece is shot in a theater with an audience, and a third is in the desert, and a third is in the dressing room. So there are those three different dimensions. Of the personal, private space of the dressing room, the large, expansive spiritual space of the desert, and the community space of the theater.
Which experience did you enjoy doing more? Performing in cinema, knowing that you have to be so much more intimate in mere expressions because of the close-up, or the theater, where you know it’s a singular experience that is only existing in that time and space.
Aaron: It’s apples and oranges. Because I come from the theater, that’s where I filmed the play, and that’s where my main experience has been. It’s a real joy to perform the piece that way, and it’s very challenging as a play. It’s one of the most challenging forms I’ve ever done. But when I got to the film, it was just a total delight because I wanted to explore film more intimately than I had in my career, and it was a real pleasure to really play with it. To play with that subtlety and work with the camera and work in small pieces. I was just totally thrilled with that. I can’t really put one over the other, but since the film was newer, it was really, really exciting to work that way, as an actor.
Well, you know, it’s funny, because there has been this increasing amount of intermediality between performance art and cinema. You know, Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto Laurie Simmons’ My Art. To a certain extent, even Marina Abramovic’s documentary, The Artist is Present and now your film as well. Do you think this trend of blending performance art and cinema is set to continue?
Aaron: You know, I don’t know. I mean, I’m hardly an expert in the field. But I would imagine that, with the technological ease that’s at our fingertips now with high quality video cameras in their pocket… yeah. It seems like it’s only going to grow. I’m a part of it now. Yeah, I would think that, especially because we’re consumers of narrative now. It’s coming at us all the time. It’s coming at us all day in these little bite sizes, and through different kinds of media. And so, I think it’s really interesting to see how it plays. In the theater, we’ve been using projections and moving image for the long time now, and it feels like it’s overused. In fact, we resisted using it in the live production. Originally, I thought maybe I would have projections. But in the end, I doubled down and stood on the opposite side, on the imagination. We just have a simple backdrop, and it’s just the imagination, and it’s very transformational that way. But we went the other direction, we brought theater into film, which I think was really fun, and, in a kind of unique way. I don’t know of another film that exactly captures these different spaces like we did with one performer. But anyway, I think with the way we’re consuming and taking in narrative now, it would seem like we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of stuff.
Your play has this multitude of characters that you jump in between, and that you seem to have an intimate knowledge of, as if you embody them on a very personal level. How did you develop those characters?
Aaron: They’re all based on interviews with people in Israel and Palestine. Some of the characters are composites of a few people, some are invented in summary based on the people that I met. I changed all the characters’ names. So, it’s pretty written now, we’ve got pretty tight pieces of writing. But they’re all based on people that I met and on the experiences that I had. The narrative of my own journey there is also based on my experiences over the course of ten years condensed into one journey. And then I’d been performing them for a full year before we shot the film. Actually, it was quite a few years after all the readings, and kind of working on and developing the text, which I did publicly all over the country. I think you turn it into something real. I’m very intimate with these characters. They lived inside of me for so long. I think that was kind of a unique thing in filmmaking. We shot this whole thing in ten short days.
Wow, that’s impressive.
Aaron: How often do you get to rehearse for a year before you shoot a movie? Which is, in a sense, what happened. I’d been performing the show for a year—you know, before we shot the movie. And that just makes a difference in terms of how to capture it on film, especially in such a short amount of time. I mean, we sometimes did it one and two takes, rarely more than two for any of this stuff. And some of them are long takes! The characters are kind of baked in me. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
There is also this dichotomy that you create. It’s a very humanist journey that you and these characters that you embody go through. I guess what I want to ask, is what do you hope to achieve with the project?
Aaron: What’s emerged through conversations in the community and after screenings is that the piece is really about multiplicity and multiple perspectives. And then on a mental level, people have asked me, “Did you ever think of casting multiple actors to play these different parts?” And really, the answer to that is no, because the whole exercise is about my experience as a singular human being. It’s about the notion that each of us can contain multiple perspectives within us. So, I think the answer is yes, and I think it’s demonstrated in the film. And that’s the transformational magic of acting and the transformational magic of film and theater. That we can, in one sitting, experience this multiplicity, these multiple perspectives. Particularly in this time of extreme polarization in the political and societal sphere. On many different topics. I hope the film reminds us that we, as human beings, have great capacity to hold many more than just one point of view, and that our ability to do that is what can guide us to creating more long-standing, peaceful, and harmonious paths in social and political realms.
Check out the trailer below!