H2 – Hebron: Conflictual Theatre

Camille Louis in Conversation with Winter Family

H2 – Hebron is a docu-performance by Winter Family (Ruth Rosenthal and Xavier Klaine) based on meetings and interviews held over a long period of time in the city of Hebron. The work was part of SVT’s the Gathering Festival, this year in Jerusalem. 

Amit Mann

Extract from Camille Louis’s interview with the Winter Family on their work H2 - Hebron.

Camille Louis: Even though it deals with a very specific situation – namely, H2, the zone in the Palestinian city of Hebron administered by Israel – your theatre production can’t be seen as arising out of just a desire to inform or educate the viewer about what might be the “reality” of this complex locality. You don’t ask “informed experts,” but instead “form a shared experience.” You enable the audience to experience this conflict zone in a sensitive way by plunging us into the conflicting nature of narratives that purport to describe the situation as justly as possible, and end up covering the entire scope of the obscene injustice that rules in the city. Thus it is not a question of “representing” the war by having clearly chosen – “for us but without us” – the right camp to support. Rather, it’s a matter of putting ourselves directly in conflict with this plurality of narratives – those of the Palestinians, the settlers, the Israeli soldiers, and then the international activists – and the resulting deranged political machine that we no longer have any control over.

Since it seems you’ve never been concerned with creating an attractive new version to paste over all of the existing ones, nor to provide us with a new Truth, could we backtrack and discuss the original impetus behind this piece? In the process of creation, what prompted you to not only speak about H2 but to let it speak for itself in all its violence and terrifying absurdity? What is the driving force behind your intuition and – since intuition is called “a thought that arises from a shock” – for you who know the region quite well, what was the shock triggered so strongly by this situation in Hebron?

Winter Family: It’s true that it all started with an intuition, with this shock that you refer to. Ruth re-established contact with a very good childhood friend who became religious and then a settler. She now lives in the most heavily fortified settlement, a citadel in the Palestinian city of Hebron, with her activist husband and their 11 children, “protected” by 40 Israeli soldiers day and night. She makes soaps and skin creams. Ruth went to visit her and she was shocked. The absurdity and violence of the situation in Hebron is shocking even for us, who know Palestine but don’t learn about the Israeli occupation. The radicality of existences in Hebron is shocking. It’s a radicality chosen in the exaltation on the part of the settlers, and by ideological and humanist conviction on the part of international observers and activists. It’s a radicality suffered cruelly, violently and so unjustly by the Palestinian inhabitants and radicality suffered in another way, of course, by the young Israeli soldiers serving in occupied Palestine.

The H2 zone in Hebron is a microcosm of this Israeli occupation in Palestine. All the ingredients are there: the theft of Palestinian properties, the principles of separation, the soldiers and settlers who work together, and so on – but there’s a major element that also exists in Hebron: the tourism of the occupation. Each day many tourist groups, accompanied by their multilingual guides, meet up with each other, usually pro-Palestinian but also ultra-Zionist, to visit the H2 zone. […]

CL: How did you go about encountering and prolonging this contradictory polyphony? One can imagine that, in an occupied territory, not all the voices are entitled to the same space of visibility, nor do they deserve, officially, the same level of attention. However, we, the audience, hear everything and that allows us to experience this same vertigo even though many of us have probably never been there.

WF: In the beginning, Ruth kept going back to Hebron to record her friend – and then her children, her husband, their settler friends [...] A show was already emerging despite us (as a project, we would have rather focused on recording our third album) and we both continued the process by not remaining in speechless shock caused by this horrible area (and which really took hold of us) but going even further to confront it. We decided to record the Palestinian neighbors with Ruth’s friend and then, in ever wider concentric circles, the Palestinian inhabitants on both sides of the checkpoints, the Israeli military serving in the zone, the Palestinian leaders of Hebron, and then young Palestinian resistance fighters, former Israeli soldiers, repentant or otherwise, UN observers, members of NGOs, and the war-tourism guides who work in H2. [...]

CL: How did you go about “translating” this mass of information into a real sensitive and political experience? One cannot help associating this capacity of composition (and note that experience is precisely defined as a “composition of the relations between heterogeneous elements”) to your own practice as musicians, a capacity to work the language not only in what is conveyed as sense, as meaning, but also as a true material of sensibility.

WF: First of all, we made the painful decision to arbitrarily remove the words that kept us away from the H2 zone itself. We concentrated solely on the route taken by the war tourist groups, leaving aside the testimony concerning the H1 zone (officially controlled by the Palestinian Authority) and all the words spoken about the conflict and the occupation in general. Out of that, we ended up with a version of 120 very coherent pages that was very consistent but still too long in our view; and that length was still blurring the dichotomy between occupier and occupied, which we did not want to do. So, over the course of months of reading aloud, we slowly eliminated a sentence here, an adjective there, taking an empirical approach, concentrating on the musicality and phrasing of Ruth. This is at the heart of our documentary work, which is totally “subjective, sensitive” – as Vincent Baudriller, the director of the Vidy Lausanne theatre, once told us. We had the impression that we were clearing the space around the words that were most essential in our view, with a brush, like archeologists respecting the precious nature of the material, to finally arrive at a 30-page version spoken in one hour.

CL: But perhaps it is this concern that has made you so aptly conceive that toward which, without wishing to influence our point of view, you direct our view, our gaze. That is to say, we are constantly “between”: between what is said by Ruth and what we see; between what is visible, rendered visible, and what underpins this visibility (the stories, the beliefs) and it is essential, so that we experience it in the tension that we feel right up to the end.

WF: In our working procedure, the model quickly became necessary as the central element that we needed to rely on. Because ultimately, the city is the only tangible element of Hebron. The only Truth observable by all is this dead coral, destroyed by the pollution of the occupation. Using a 3D printed plastic model, by its nature cold and distant, allowed us to emphasize by contrast the mad passion of the discourses and stories that animate human beings in the H2 zone. The monologue delivered by Ruth, composed of several voices, is the city itself. She embodies Hebron through her various testimonies and does not seek to personify human beings. 

In Hebron, where the Tomb of Abraham is also the location of the Ibrahim Mosque, where each stone has such imbedded, contradictory stories, with such disastrous consequences for the Palestinian residents, where everyone relies on a massacre to justify their presence, we are at the heart of this dialectic. There is the famous Rashomon, which has always profoundly affected us: how can the same story be lived, perceived, felt, told so differently by different human beings? Because they are still human beings. Monsters do not exist. [...]

We then worked the monologue the way we still work our music and in particular Ruth’s spoken text in our songs, which is based on an almost Baroque phrasing, rubato, literally “to steal time.” This rubato allows us to render the sensibilities of the characters of this sad and cruel scenario by avoiding an attempt at romantic interpretation that would be futile and indecent here, especially since, again, Ruth as an Israeli is, despite herself, a stakeholder in this catastrophe. All this in a global accelerando which itself relies on the sounds we recorded in the city during our visits: with the city surprisingly calm in the morning until the arrival of the tourist buses, the Israeli surveillance drones in the sky increasingly present over the course of the day, then the sound level of the Palestinian riots in the afternoon followed by the fierce and deafening Israeli repression 50 meters away from the tourist groups. Finally the visit ends at nightfall, and again everything is calm. “We can go back to Tel Aviv,” and leave all these people to their very radical fate. 

CL: In this choice, I sense more than a “technical” resolution but, as always in your work, the form and the device are chosen to give a tangible and incarnate consistency to your project. Here, it brings the conflict to life, the encounter of multiple voices that must live together, which “go together” without being in unison and which for us embody neither a favorable resolution nor the desirable reconciliation, but “dissensus” as the aesthetic engine of political liveliness.

WF: [...] In spite of ourselves, we are all considered to be actors of these absurdities and political violence and that is why, if the spectators are taken in the piece as tourists, Ruth also places herself in a position to embody all the guides: the Palestinians, the military, the settlers. She plays them in front of the war tourists who, in spite of themselves, are played by the spectators of the theatre, who are taken to task, just as we are taken to task as soon as we arrive in Hebron. Since theatregoers are often seen as cultural tourists from the misery of others who will go for a drink, more or less with nausea, to the theatre bar. A bit like taking the bus back to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem after spending a day in Hebron.

By doing this, we do not try to educate the viewer. We trust the audience. We don’t really like didactic spectacles, [...] I believe that all this is frankly related to the fact that we are musicians, that our adolescent musical encounters were with punk, noise, metal, minimal musics, dark and violent. We prefer when it creaks. And people are intelligent. Music trusts its audience – it has no choice. It is really essential for us to always deconstruct the drama, by exposing the elements of our shows in an obvious, unadorned way: the testimonies, the sounds, the heat, the audience, the plastic model, the lights, the smoke of the grenades. Because we refuse to manipulate the audience in the emotional drama, because we do not believe in the theatrical pact. This is the somewhat contradictory issue of our work but it is what puts us to work.

For the full interview

December, 2019