January 20, 2019

‘Wrestling Jerusalem’ makes leap from stage to screen

Aaron Davidman plays 17 characters from the U.S., Israel and the West Bank in the film “Wrestling Jerusalem.” Photo by Ken Friedman

It’s not easy to adapt a one-man play to a feature-length film. The intensity of a live performance can get lost in such a visual medium as cinema. Yet somehow, “Wrestling Jerusalem,” which conveys the complexity of the Israel-Palestine conflict through a series of dramatic monologues, manages to translate to the big screen.

Writer and performer Aaron Davidman, the only actor in the film, plays 17 characters from the United States, Israel and the West Bank. These voices offer unique political, social and religious perspectives on a long-simmering feud in a volatile corner of the world.

There’s Jacob, an older American who rails at the double standard Israel is held to; Ibrahim, a Palestinian whose family’s orchards were destroyed to build the separation wall; and Arnon, an Israeli special forces commander who explains why civilian casualties are regrettable but unpreventable. There’s also a farmer, a physician and a United Nations worker.

For each character, the redheaded, goateed Davidman speaks with a different accent and cadence; some suggest reasons to be hopeful and others offer only anguish and despair.

“Cinema is just a totally different art form,” he said, comparing the new film to the stage version. “It was exciting to explore the subtleties of the close-up, and the intimate, internal lives of these characters that you can’t get to in the theater.”

There also are scenes in vast desert landscapes, which on a big screen conveys the emotional journey of these characters. “Film can hold the epic nature of this conflict and the searching questions that are in the middle of the conflict,” Davidman said.

The play premiered at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco in March 2014. Davidman toured with it for a year before it was filmed by director Dylan Kussman. He and Davidman have been friends and collaborators for more than 25 years. They considered casting actors to play the different characters but ultimately decided against it.

“The power of it is that all these characters are in one person,” Kussman said. “And it’s ultimately this statement about multiplicity, about simultaneously holding conflicting ideas within ourselves, and why that’s a powerful tool for advancing a conversation about a very difficult and complex subject.”

The movie was shot in 10 days in 2015. Half of that time was spent in the Mojave Desert, which served as a stand-in for the Negev. The other scenes take place at Marines’ Memorial Theatre in San Francisco. They shot for two days in a dressing room, in which Davidman addresses himself in the mirror, and three days onstage, including a performance in front of a sold-out crowd.

The movie is shot simply, using three cameras, with lighting and sound design adding to the drama. The props include only a few pieces of furniture in the desert: a row of bus seats, a desk and a chair, and a table with an umbrella. Throughout the film, Davidman wears only a tan button-down shirt and khaki pants, causing him to nearly disappear amid the sand and rocks.

Davidman and Kussman both found inspiration in another screen adaptation of a solo show, Spalding Gray’s “Swimming to Cambodia,” directed by the recently deceased Jonathan Demme. That film, made 30 years ago, shows Gray seated at a desk in a theater, recounting stories over a soundtrack composed by Laurie Anderson.

Without that film, “there would be no ‘Wrestling Jerusalem,’ ” Kussman said. “I really believe that. Because when we went through the really gut-checking conversation of, ‘Can you translate a one-man show to film?’ I kept on saying to myself, ‘Demme did it.’ ”

“That movie was so important in the theater world, of [showing] look what you can do,” Davidman added. “Of course, we wanted to go beyond that, we didn’t want to just be sitting in the theater … but that was a point of departure, for sure.”

Davidman and Kussman are developing another film project, which Davidman described as “a psychological thriller involving white nationalism and the re-emergence of Jews in Poland.”

Davidman also has been working with Google’s executive training department, screening “Wrestling Jerusalem” and leading discussions with global executives as part of a series of workshops called “Leading in Complexity.”

“They’ve got complex problems they’ve got to solve,” he said. “To look at this piece, not so much because it’s Israel-Palestine, but because it holds multiple perspectives, because it has compassion for people that are different from you, and because it models one person embodying so many points of view, that’s what they’re really excited about and interested in.”

Davidman estimates he has performed the show live 142 times. He always ends with an audience discussion about the issues at the heart of “Wrestling Jerusalem.” Allowing people to take time to reflect, listen and engage with others who may not share their perspectives is the most profound aspect of the project, he said, and several of the film screenings also will end with discussions.

“I see myself as a vessel for the audience, who want to dig deeper, or have questions, or feel moved, or are upset, or whatever they are,” Davidman said. “I don’t want to explain the movie, but I’m happy to help take the conversation further … especially now. We’re not doing that in public. We’re dismissive of people that don’t agree with us. We’re contemptuous of the other side. We don’t have time for it. And I’m asking people to enter into this narrative with me and then be brave enough to stay curious.”

“Wrestling Jerusalem” will screen from May 12-18 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills. The official L.A. premiere will be on May 13. For more information about showings, go to wrestlingjerusalem.com.