Interviews

Speaking with a Theater Director Who Reconstructs Histories of Communities in Conflict

The Argentine theater director and filmmaker Lola Arias reflects on her practice of creating work that provides the space to reflect on social or philosophical problems.

Still from the film Theater of War Marcelo (AR) and Lou (GB) exchanging stories (photograph by Marcelo Abramovic)

BUENOS AIRES — I meet Lola Arias in a café garden in Colegiales, a neighborhood in Buenos Aires, which she, with her family, is about to leave to make Berlin her home base. There, she will work on a new piece concerning undocumented children and continue to travel around the world showing her plays, films, performances — and all her projects that cross these disciplines. In the last months her play Minefield has been touring the United States, her documentary piece “Atlas of Communism” (2016) was shown for the first time in her home country, Argentina, and her film Theater of War has been screening in Boston and Minneapolis and will be part of MOMA’s Doc Fortnight, on February 24 and 26.

Both the play Minefield and the documentary Theater of War are part of the same project in which Arias, together with veterans of the Malvinas/Falklands War of 1982, reconstruct memories in a tense and emotional production, in which the former British and Argentine soldiers are themselves the stars — former enemies, side by side.

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Hyperallergic: How have Minefield and Theater of War been received in the US so far, where the audience may not be familiar with this conflict?

Lola Arias: Both the play as well as the movie worked very well. I mean, Americans are of course experts of war … [Arias laughs].

On our tour in 32 cities throughout the world, we showed it in different places where the 74-day war is not necessarily known. The project goes beyond this war, showing how war affects people and society. It is more about the traces of war, than about this particular conflict, and the public connects to this.

Both the play and the film attract a broad audience. Aside from the art crowd, people from the military attend, like at the Skirball Center, where veterans of the Vietnam War came to see the play. After the performance, they stayed to hug their British and Argentine colleagues.

A scene from Minefield by Lola Arias at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre, downstairs; developed by the Royal Court and LIFT (photo by ©Tristram Kenton 06/16)

H: How is the play different from the film?

LA: Well, in the play, the actors, who aren’t really actors, are there together on stage — former enemies together in an artistic production, recalling, hearing, and reenacting each other’s stories. Their physical presence is very potent.

H: What was the reaction like the first time it was shown in Argentina?

A scene from Minefield by Lola Arias, the diary of Ghurka, Sukrim Rai, a knife specialist in the British army at the Royal Court, Jerwood Theatre, downstairs; developed by the Royal Court and LIFT (photo by ©Tristram Kenton 06/16)

LA: The first time we showed it, the aim of the project might not have been clear. People thought that by including British veterans, we were questioning the sovereignty of the islands. Argentine veterans attended the first performance, front row, holding banners saying, “Las Malvinas son nuestras!” [“The Malvinas are ours!”]

The second time around, in Argentina last year, there was much more understanding and emotions were shared. This does not happen with the documentary film. The main characters aren’t there.

H: What is the aim of your works?

Portrait of Lola Arias (photo by Catalina Bartolomé)

LA: I don’t have a goal per se. I like to present a work of art as a space for reflection on a social or philosophical problem and create a space of togetherness in the theatre. And in this case, people came from different cultures. In this project [on the Falklands/Malvinas War] people who used to be enemies came together, people who had not “seen each other” for 35 years (even though at the time they had not really known one another) so there was this challenge to generate the space, this bridge, this encounter, which would have unpredictable consequences. I didn’t know what was going to happen when I brought them together and started reconstructing their histories. This is something that fascinates me: to create worlds, communities, spaces, that do not exist in the real world.

H: Did you hope they would reconcile?

LA: No. It interests me to see what happens and which stories are told when people come together who do not share the same view: for me that is a form of democracy — to be able to live together in discordance.

H: How do the lead characters experience their participation?

LA: It’s very empowering to be part of this, I think, feeling that your story has value, is recognized, and even applauded. Marcelo, one of the Argentine veterans in the play and film, could have never imagined himself ever setting foot in the country of the enemy, let alone performing with them. After the war he could not even stand his son listening to English pop music. Imagine how he must have felt performing at the Royal Court Theatre in London!

H: How does participation come into being?

LA: I investigate and then invite people for interviews. If I am interested in their story, I ask them to meet again. And after a few meetings I ask them to consider participating in the project.

H: And Marcelo?

LA: It was difficult. He refused many times. But now he really loves this piece, as do all of them. They don’t even think of stopping. This is the third year on tour. And for me, well, I think we could wind it up, but they don’t want to. The fact that the piece is still traveling is because of them. I think it’s beautiful that it means so much for them. They own it and are proud of it.

Still from the film Theater of War by Lola Arias; Marcelo standing in the middle, recounting his suicide attempt

H: In all your projects conflict lies at the core: dictatorship, war or entire ideologies like Communism. How come?

LA: Conflict lies at the heart of theater. Action in fictional theater is generated by conflict. In my documentary projects I work with communities that are in tension with one another. And together we reconstruct history, which in itself is conflictive because everyone has different perspectives on what has happened — whether that is Communism, war, or dictatorship. My works are polyphonic, uniting people with different points of views. It is history seen through the eyes of these persons, without a pretense to being universal, which, through its subjectivity, becomes universal.

H: So everyone’s reality is real?

LA: For the plays and films, I write the storyline, based upon the stories of the participants. So, in a way, I fictionalize their reality. I write during the interviews and intertwine the stories into one narrative. When you see it in the theater or cinema it may seem improvised, but it has all been written out. What you see is the product of a writer.

H: Based upon their stories.

Former enemies showing each other their stations on the map of the Falklands/the Malvinas

LA: Yes. Transforming their stories is a very precise and delicate exertion. It is not transcribing and editing, it is rewriting their reality, so that it becomes one powerful tale.

H: How do you see the fictionalization in relation to fakeness?

LA: It has nothing to do with it. Since narration, fictionalization has existed. It’s nothing new. The particularity of this project lies in that the “based upon a true story” is not acted out by actors, but by the people themselves. This makes the political or social impact much bigger.

H: What kind of stories attract you now?

LA: I am very concerned about the undocumented people globally. So many are not registered, hang in a legal limbo, and live without an official status. My last play What They Want to Hear deals with a Syrian archeologist who has been living this Kafkaesque nightmare trying to get recognized as a refugee in Germany for the last 5 years. And we can’t even help Raaed, who is sharing his story in the play.

I realize that my work has been shifting slowly to the present. From the Argentinean dictatorship, to the Malvinas, to the discords of today.

H: Are you becoming an activist?

LA: Yes, I want to participate in the debate, but from my perspective, which is the arts. I am an artist and an activist through my art: using art to contribute to change.

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Editor’s Note: The interview was translated from Spanish into English by the writer and then edited for clarity.

Lola Aria’s Theater of War will screen during the Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight (11 West 53 Street, Midtown, Manhattan) February 24 and 26.

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