The Argentine writer, performer, and director (not sociologist) Lola Arias is busy. Her most recent project, and first feature-length film, “Theater of War” won awards from two of the independent juries at the 2018 Berlin International film festival and was screened at SXSW 2018 in Austin, Texas. In the coming months, both the film and her play “Minefield” will be shown in Switzerland, Poland, and South Korea. In the midst of such a hectic schedule, Arias was in Buenos Aires for the Latin American debut of “Theater of War” at BAFICI on April 19.
The film is a documentary about the making and performance of “Minefield,” Arias’ 2016 play that brings together three Argentine and three British veterans of the Malvinas War to recount, re-enact, and reflect on their experiences. It shows the audition process, the first meetings between the veterans, and scenes from the play. In some scenes, the former soldiers candidly describe their battlefield experiences; in others they act out scripted sequences. Though the film is a documentary of the play, it is not a documentary of the war itself. For Arias, the ambiguous line between fact and fiction is part and parcel of the work.
The territorial dispute over the islands remains a charged issue today (more so in Argentina than the UK), but Arias does not take sides with her work. She frames the project as an exploration of human conflict and coexistence, competing narratives of history, and a radically different approach to making a war movie.
This interview has been translated and lightly edited for clarity.
The Bubble: Theater of War has already shown in international festivals. How are you feeling about Latin American premiere here in Buenos Aires?
Lola Arias: The film has already premiered in Berlin, but this is the first time I’ll see it with all the protagonists. The play and the film and the book all begin with a question about our history, about the history that we have been told about this war, about how to reconstruct this history in Argentina. So it will be very exciting to see it with an Argentine audience.
This project began in 2013 with “After the War” [a video installation]. In it you worked only with Argentine veterans. What inspired you to incorporate British veterans as well?
When I began this project about the memories of Argentine veterans I began to ask myself, “what will the English remember? What memory is stuck in their head 35 years later?” The video installation was shown in London and seeing people’s reactions, how they talked about the islands and about the war, made me wonder what the English would remember.
From there, the idea began to make a film and a play in parallel. Finding the protagonists from the English side took a long time. We started the auditions in 2015 —those interviews with the English veterans are part of the movie. We tried to make connections with charities and institutions that worked with veterans. It was a lot of research just to be able to start this project.
When you were doing the research, these interviews with former soldiers, you asked them for a memory that they couldn’t forget. You were growing up during the war, what is a memory of that time that you can’t forget?
What sticks in my memory the most is the “March of the Malvinas” that I learned in school. Even today, I can sing it from beginning to end. We learned it as kids, “The Malvinas are Argentine/the wind cries and the sea roars.” It is very fixed [in my memory], because it’s a march, because it has this military content, and it speaks about the loss of a territory, the pain of losing a place. For me it is very abstract, but in a certain way it marks you if you grew up in the 80s in Argentina—this idea that we had lost something, that something had been taken from us and that it was ours. Meeting with the English [veterans] and hearing how it was to live through the war, what effects it had on society, and how they remembered it, made me realize that we had two very different narratives of what occurred.
The project reunites former soldiers from different sides of a war. Do you remember how the first encounter between the veterans went?
Before they met, the most difficult thing was to convince some of them to participate in the project, because they were afraid of what would happen when they met with their former enemies. I think the ones who decided to participate were convinced that it made sense to do it. There was a lot of curiosity about the others’ stories.
The first encounters were basically people who were in the same place that meet many years after and try to reconstruct exactly where the other was. They shared photos, looked at the map together, tried to see where and in which place on the islands they had been, if they had fought against one another at a distance. That was the first thing: Where were you? What did you do? In which area did you fight?
As the project advanced, the things that they shared—many of which are not in the play or the movie—generated a strong bond between them. It is a group that for months shared a very important part of their lives: what they went through in the war, what that meant after, and what the collateral effects of the war were.
Did you see a different reaction from the audiences in the different places you’ve presented “Theater of War?”
“Theater of War” was shown in Germany, the US, Istanbul, and Copenhagen. I couldn’t go to all of the presentations so I don’t know the exact reactions. What’s interesting is that the movie works even if you don’t know about the Malvinas conflict. One doesn’t need to even know where the islands are to understand the movie. The questions in the movie are, “what does it mean to bring together old enemies, make them reconstruct their memories together, act them out, put them on stage, debate them?”
The movie also asks how to represent a war. “Theater of War” is a response to epic war movies. I decided that we’re not going to reconstruct it with big scenes, like in “Saving Private Ryan,” epic battles with super production values and special effects. Instead it will be with simple tools that are within [the veterans’] reach—their own bodies, their memories.
What are the key distinctions between the play and the film?
The fundamental difference is that theater is always present. They are there in front of you, the English and Argentine veterans, reconstructing what they lived through. That happens today and they are who they are now and you see the person in each defined moment. One day, one place. What is exciting about the play is that one can see the coexistence of the veterans in the present. What one sees in the movie is much more an evolution over time. One sees how they generate this relationship with each other, how they find new ways of talking and representing their memories.
This project is neither a fictional work nor is it a documentary about the war. How do you navigate the liminal space between fiction and non-fiction?
In the movie “Theater of War,” there are scenes that are in a certain way spontaneous, but are still staged. There are other scenes that have been rehearsed millions of times. All the time the movie asks what is authentic, what is true, and what is fictional.
There are many levels of reconstruction. They reconstruct what they lived through in the war, they reconstruct things that happened between them in a bar, drinking and talking about what happened in another moment. All that tension between fiction and documentary is a fundamental part of the project. What does it mean to work with a real story? How much of what is real can be captured by a conventional documentary? In what manner is one transformed into an artist when one starts to work with these experiences and the decisions of how to put it on stage?
When the play came to Buenos Aires, audience members brought signs with political slogans like “The Malvinas are Argentine.” For you, is “Theater of War” a political work?
“Theater of War” is a movie about how to live together, how to make something together, even in the midst of disagreement. The play does exactly that, so in that sense it is political. That’s the problem of democracy. How do we do something together, even if we don’t agree? How do we listen to the other, give space to the other, accept our disagreements and still be able to create and coexist and find new ways to relate to each other?
Art is a space that can generate a kind of utopian community of people who coexist and create something together, even having fought against each other 35 years ago, even without agreeing to whom the islands belong.
The work ends with three questions: Would you vote for war? Would you send your child to war? Have you ever felt ignored by the people for whom you fought? What are your answers (to the first two)?
The movie ends with a song, and those questions are part of the lyrics, which were written by the veterans. It talks about how they feel and the feelings they have toward society. Veterans are always viewed somewhere in between the hero and the crazy person and the victim. In truth, the question is: Why do we make war? Why do we vote for war? What are we imagining when we make that decision for the lives of others?
No, I wouldn’t vote for war. I wouldn’t send my children to war. It’s obvious. I don’t think things are resolved with a gun in hand. In this case, the question is not waiting to be answered. Rather, it makes the audience conscious of the collective responsibility for the lives of those who went to fight.