For a world premiere in Charleston at Spoleto, Letter to a Friend in Gaza has assembled a cast of performers from across the disparate and conflicting nations of the Middle East. Among the four actors, two Israelis and two Palestinians will share the stage together. Providing an added harmony, the actors are accompanied by three musicians hailing from Iran, Syria, and Israel. Together these artists will unite in a mixed-media performance blending film, music, and poetry to dissect the conflicts that divide their people.
“Building harmony in such a conflicting area and including all the different representatives of all the current conflicts of the Middle East — since we are in the arts, we think that is a good place to put them all on stage and create a great dialogue,” says Israeli filmmaker and Letter to a Friend director Amos Gitai.
For his most recent stage production, Gitai drew some inspiration from Albert Camus’ Letters to a German Friend, penned by the French philosopher during the German occupation of France in an effort to “throw some light on the blind battle we were then waging.” Gitai went so far as to visit the late Camus’ daughter to delve more deeply into the mind of the man who wrote to a friend who would be his enemy in wartime, describing their shared memory of Europe: “For all those landscapes, those flowers, and those plowed fields, the oldest of lands, show every spring that there are things you cannot choke in blood.”
Now, exactly 75 years removed from Camus’ profound correspondence, Gitai continues to draw inspiration.
“Camus is trying to simulate what can be the relations when the war would be over. Because we know that wars at some point, they end,” he explains. “They end because of fatigue. They end because there is nothing more to be done by using brutality. One day they just end. I was very touched by this text of Camus, and I thought that it would be a very good idea to transpose this onto the warriors of the Middle East.”
After more than 40 years as a filmmaker, Gitai is no stranger to conflicts, both real and simulated, staged and inescapably genuine. But, in his role as an artist, Gitai draws from more than just his past experiences in film and theater.
“I’m originally an architect. The role of art or the architect is to build bridges. And not to listen to the excitement or the hate which is distributed by politicians. I think it’s also true to this country,” says Gitai, who is currently serving as a visiting professor at Columbia University School of the Arts in New York. “The art or the theater or the cinema has to take a position and try to create a dialogue. In some ways, it’s even more complicated than political negotiations because when we talk about creative dialogue, it’s about sensitivities. It’s about taste. It’s about rhythm. It’s much more complicated than just negotiating something. But if we achieve it, it’s great. It’s a gesture of hope.”
Gitai tells his students at Columbia that art has to engage. We as a society need new people to re-engage with the world around them. While entertainment surely has its place in our lives, Gitai stresses that we can’t allow the arts to withdraw from the context of real life — no matter how bad things get.
“If we can say something positive for all the negative news that we have, it has forced some people to re-engage with reality,” says Gitai. “All these despots who are running around right now, it’s a big wake-up call to all sorts of people to start to think that the theater and the cinema are the proper ways to inject ideas.”
In this way, Gitai seeks a powerful utilization of the arts, one that forces you to reassess what’s happening around or, hell, maybe even to you. By bringing this intimate performance to Spoleto, the director now hopes to create a meeting point for these ideas and the international community to come together.
“By the fact that you have these people on stage, this is a very optimistic work,” says Gitai. “I don’t think that the theater or the arts have real power. They have only symbolic power. They should not have real power. But we are using the symbol to create a stage, which is by itself a place of dialogue.”