‘Wrestling Jerusalem’: Film Review

Wrestling Jerusalem Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Srolik Productions
Too much of a well-meaning thing.

In this filmed version of his one-man play, writer-performer Aaron Davidman explores the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The first words in Wrestling Jerusalem are “It’s complicated,” and Aaron Davidman doesn’t pretend to simplify the subject with his first-person look at politics, animosities and hope in the Middle East. But in translating the one-man show to the screen, actor-turned-director Dylan Kussman has unnecessarily complicated the material, overcompensating for its stage-bound nature with busy crosscutting between a San Francisco theater and the Mojave Desert (subbing for the Negev). 

Channeling the perspectives of 17 characters based on people he interviewed (some are invented), Davidman has an unmistakable talent for inhabiting personalities, male and female, across a range of ethnicities, ages and points of view. In its combination of reportage and impersonation to tackle a charged subject, his play recalls the work of Anna Deavere Smith, if not its impact. As he delves into everything from the Kabbalah to social justice to the physiological effects of war, the proceedings become so densely packed with history, opinion and firsthand experience that they cry out for a more subdued, straightforward approach. As the conversation starter that the film is designed to be, it will click best in structured discussion settings for students and community groups.

Himself an American Jew with an emotional connection to Israel but a questioning view of its policy, Davidman moves from one character to the next, among them a Palestinian woman who works for the UN, an officer in the Israeli Special Forces, an unapologetic Israeli settler and the Palestinian father of a teen who was disabled by an Israeli solder’s bullet. He draws inevitable, troubling parallels between the West Bank’s barrier walls and guard towers and the fate of European Jews. And he addresses head-on the ways that people conflate personal bias and political philosophy. A work of deep but unsentimental optimism, Wrestling Jerusalem gives us plenty to wrestle with, but presents it at such a relentless clip, in such self-conscious fashion, that it becomes wearying rather than involving.

In an attempt to amp the cinematic qualities of the play, which Davidman has toured through North America, Kussman shifts back and forth between the parched earth of the desert and Marines’ Memorial Theatre — its dressing room and its stage, both with and without an audience. In the latter case, the stage design is simple and effective, with nothing more than a textured backdrop and evocatively shifting lighting. Cinematographer Nicole Hirsch Whitaker (Cobain: Montage of Heck) captures every location without fuss, even in the film’s most stylized gambit, when twinned Davidsons (playing himself and another American) argue about Hamas across a dressing room mirror. But Kussman and editor Erik C. Andersen would have given the screen version more impact, and more time to connect with audiences, if they’d slowed things down.

A bit of welcome breathing space arrives late in the feature, with a desert sequence involving a pot-smoking, nonreligious Israeli dishwasher who is traumatized by the suicide bombing he survived and does his best to avoid the news. Here, at least, Kussman allows silence to enter the conversation — a crucial element when you’re asking people to listen to one another. 

Production company: Srolik Productions
Cast: Aaron Davidman
Director: Dylan Kussman
Original stage production director: Michael John Garces
Screenwriter: Aaron Davidman
Producers: Aaron Davidman, Dylan Kussman
Director of photography: Nicole Hirsch Whitaker
Editor: Erik C. Andersen
Composer: Bruno Louchouarn

93 minutes