Translating a play to the screen can prove cinematically daunting. If that play is a one-man show, the challenges increase exponentially. Thankfully, imagination won out in the film version of “Wrestling Jerusalem,” Berkeley-based actor-writer Aaron Davidman’s searing meditation on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Directed by Dylan Kussman, “Wrestling Jerusalem” made its world premiere July 27 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. It will screen three other times before the festival wraps up Aug. 7.
Largely autobiographical, “Wrestling Jerusalem” recounts Davidman’s vagabond journey across Israel and the West Bank. Along the way he meets a stubborn religious Zionist settler, determined Palestinian activists, a commander in the Israel Defense Forces, an Israeli emergency room physician and even an Israeli stoner at the Dead Sea traumatized by the suicide bombing death of two friends.
Davidman plays them all, male and female, young and old. He not only nails the Israeli and Palestinian accents right down to the last phoneme, but he also captures every nuanced, heartbreaking emotion in that strife-torn land.
Mixing a live performance of the play with scenes shot backstage and in a Middle East-like desert, the film draws on Davidman’s raw acting power to shed light on the spectrum of views represented on both sides of the Green Line.
Sometimes Davidman’s stridency, which probably works well on stage, comes off too breathless on screen. Kussman’s penchant for quick cuts doesn’t help on that score, but as the film goes on, one is more deeply drawn into the anguish of everyone Davidman portrays.
In the words of the character based on the ER doctor, “The message in the eyes is the same: I am not safe.”
Though Davidman does strive to walk a balanced line, the Israeli presence in the West Bank dominates the narrative, and whether intended or not the film skews its sympathies more toward the Palestinians. But as the title suggests, Davidman wrestles with his view. The film’s most gripping scene is a split screen debate between Davidman and a fiery American Jewish volunteer in Hebron, who argues an anti-Zionist line that leaves Davidman rattled.
As he says of the conflict in the film’s opening line, “It’s complicated.” That is certainly true.
“Wrestling Jerusalem” screens at 3:55 p.m. Sunday, July 31 at the Roda Theatre in Berkeley and 4:15 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 7 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. www.sfjff.org