NEW YORK — “He’s a real English gentleman,” animator and film director Cam Christiansen says about his collaborator, Sir David Hare.
One thing Hare isn’t, as he is wont to say, is an actor. Yet there are times when this award-winning playwright (“Plenty,” “Pravda,” “The Blue Room”) and screenwriter (“Damage,” “The Reader,” “Denial”) writes monologues and ends up performing them himself.
In 1998 Hare debuted “Via Dolorosa,” a rich, thorough investigation of Israel and Palestine from the point of view of a liberal British man (married to a Jewish woman) with only a vague sense of what is going on. I saw a television broadcast of the show 20 years ago and it struck me, at the time, as one of the most honest and insightful examinations not only of “The Middle East” but how grappling with a difficult topic can change a person.
In 2009, Hare presented his follow-up, “Wall.” Billed alongside a monologue about Berlin called “Berlin” (can you see the Playbill in your head?) “Wall” is more of Hare roving around the region, talking to people, than chewing on what he’s learned. There are many sequences of driving with Palestinians, idling through checkpoints, having their time wasted. There is also a flashback to the 2001 bombing of the Dolphinarium discotheque. There are recurring characters from last time, but also a new central figure: the border fence.
Fast-forward another 10 years and “Wall” is in cinemas. Unlike the broadcast of “Via Dolorosa,” this isn’t just Hare on stage. “Wall” has been reinterpreted as animation. Most of the time it is Hare in “motion capture,” talking to people. Then things get creative: In one sequence, the graffiti on the fence (slogans and artistic renderings of Palestinian icons such as hijacker terrorist Leila Khaled) comes to life.
It is a remarkable film, and I know that it will appeal to interested parties outside of the Middle East region. It’s entirely possible that Israelis and Palestinians won’t give a whit what a British playwright has to say on the matter, especially when a Canadian animator starts a freeflow of imagery.
Or maybe these are just the voices who can bring clarity.
The Times of Israel spoke with Hare prior to the film’s American debut. (There will be free screenings at Film Forum in New York City starting April 3.) Below is a condensed transcript of our conversation.
“Wall” was originally conceived as a companion to another monologue, “Berlin,” which makes perfect sense on a marquee. But as time moves on, it really feels like it is in conversation with “Via Dolorosa.”
I think you are right. I went to Israel and Palestine in the late 1990s and wrote “Via Dolorosa” and never intended to write on that subject again. I never write on the same subject twice. But I’ve broken my own rule. When I returned to the region I was so taken aback by the wall and how it changed the area. I was bemused that there was so little written about it, or even spoken about it; it’s such a huge physical fact of the region.
Perhaps one reason people don’t talk about it as much as they do other things is that while it is a physical and emotional blight it is hard to argue, from an Israeli point of view, that it doesn’t get the job done.
That’s it. Though it has disempowered liberal and progressive people in Israel, and we see them in this film admitting, “I can hardly deny that the whole thing is a success.” They don’t like it. They don’t want to look at it. One person says they go out of their way if making a trip to not have to see it. But the number of strikes against Israel, the number of deaths from terrorism, has hugely diminished.
The only fact in the film that anyone has contested is when I say that 84 percent of Israelis support the wall — but there is an argument that it is even more.
Then I show what Rabin said, which is paradoxical. He is now thought of as a hero for the peace movement, but he was the first to talk about a wall. But he talked about it as a philosophy, and that’s really what the film is about, it’s about shutting yourself off and what effect that has on you psychologically.
Very early you talk about word choice, how something as simple as that immediately declares what side you are on. You use the great example “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” The Palestinians call it a wall, the Israelis call it a fence. Was there any hesitation in calling this piece “Wall”?
No, and this was maybe prescient, but even back then I could see that walls were going to be the coming thing. It took eight years for Cam Christiansen and the National Film Board of Canada to finish the animation, and they would ring me and say, “do you think this is going to be outdated?” But as soon as Donald Trump started campaigning on a wall I said, “I don’t see this issue going off the boil any time soon.”
You can also look at Brexit as a form of a wall. People voted for it to control immigration. There’s a feeling we want to put up a bloody great wall around the United Kingdom, and live behind that wall. Wealthy, advanced societies wanting to prevent people from arriving is the big issue of the 21st century; the six or seven billion people who would like to have what the one billion people have, and don’t see why they don’t have a fair shot of getting it.
“Via Dolorosa” took great pains to be as balanced as was possible. It was part of the thesis statement – you show a point of view from one side, then you immediately move to the other. In “Wall,” to me, it felt like this was less of a concern.
The only value “Via Dolorosa” had was that it could be listened to by anyone. Okay, maybe if you were a passionate settler it wasn’t the most comfortable hour-and-a-half you ever had, and similarly if you were a supporter of Hamas. But its value was that everyone could listen to it and no one said “ah, David Hare’s point of view is well known as blah blah.”
With “Wall” I feel that I am doing the same thing. I’m saying, “Look, I don’t think this wall is really the future for either side.” It’s not hard to describe the physical effect it’s having for the Palestinians, or the disastrous psychological effects it is happening on them. Take that terrible moment when the man in Nablus has a poster of Saddam Hussein, and is trying to defend him. But I also don’t think it is a wonderful psychological thing for the Israelis.
I think the film is even handed. We’ve shown it all over the world and there’s been no complaint.
Adapting the monologue for animation is a marvelous choice, and there are a few moments where the talking stops and almost surreal imagery takes over. Were you concerned at all about the visual aspect adding a commentary not in the monologue?
No. We had a Q&A in London and something someone said really struck me; they said, “I never thought of animation as a wonderfully cool place to give people time to think.” I love the fact that by animating it you distance it.
A documentary film has the familiar images of the region, and familiar images of violence. When you see them drawn it gives you time. The long passages where the animator almost joins me, that’s where the audience can think for themselves. The final 10 minutes when the graffiti on the wall comes to life, it’s something that I don’t think words could do.
It’s funny you mention the graffiti. In “Via Dolorosa” you visit Yad Vashem and say that the only thing that doesn’t “work” is the artwork that is there. “Art is insufficient,” you say and even go on, provocatively, that “the ovens are their own art.” Yet “Wall” reverses this; the story stops and it evolves away from facts into art.
The big difference, of course, is the death of 6 million people is a subject that is very very hard to treat artistically. Not that it hasn’t been done successfully. I just mean that if art is adding commentary to something of that scale, it just seems superfluous.
This is different. This is a political situation, and it is similar to others. I could imagine an animated film about Kashmir or Afghanistan or Iraq. We’re not talking about the scale of what happened in Europe from 1939 to 1945, which was on a scale that can make art look cosmetic. That’s not the situation here.
Did you like seeing yourself as a cartoon?
I do laugh at Cam’s version of me. There was a humiliating week where we had to do motion capture animation, and I wore this hideous blue lycra suit with 40 studded stars that radiate light. Actors behave like this is normal. They do this all the time when they are fighting dragons or traveling through space. For a writer, it is an unusual place to find yourself.
The reality of this is like a Jorge Luis Borges short story. You had conversations with friends in Ramallah and Tel Aviv and elsewhere. You then went back home and rewrote this as a monologue. You performed this on stage doing the voices yourself. Now you went to a film studio to reenact your own conversations with actors pretending to be, say, David Grossman or George Ibrahim.
It’s unheard of. And the person I went with, the British theater director looking to meet Israeli and Palestinian theater groups, he said he didn’t realize so much had happened in those five days. But 10 years on and the trip still has resonance. There’s just … there’s just something about visiting that region that gets me going every time.
As someone tuned into the arts in the region, which books are on your recommendation list?
Raja Shehadeh, who I quote, he’s a lawyer living in Ramallah, he’s written a wonderful book “Palestinian Walks,” about walking the hills and about Palestine as a topographical entity, about what you see when you walk. It’s one of the most original and interesting ways of looking at the region.
Obviously David Grossman is one of the most wonderful witnesses to what is going on. And Amos Oz, who just died. They are the people I turn to and reread.
I know you are not a politician, but I would say that most people who watch this film are open-minded, and the type of person who, you know, hopes for a solution some day. This movie ends; you want to do something. So what do you, Sir David Hare, recommend as a next step for –
Ugh. I’ve really tried to keep out of it. I don’t sign petitions. I don’t give my name. I value the idea that people to listen to me and consider the problem without going, “oh, well we all know where David Hare is coming from.”
Everything that I feel is in the film. I think that, psychologically, living behind a wall is very bad for you. And I think the way that the Israeli position has dug in over the last 10 years has not been good for the Israelis. And I don’t think living in the shadow of that wall has been great for the Palestinians. So what what I would love to see is the end of the wall. It goes without saying. How that is reached I leave for other people to decide.
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