Theatre of War: an Interview with Lola Arias

A half-forgotten but important episode in British history is given a new perspective in ‘Theatre of War’, an absorbing new film by Argentinian artist Lola Arias.

Arias is mainly known for her theatre work. ‘Theatre of War’ originated from her play ‘Minefield’, which was shown at the Royal Court Theatre in 2016, and features performances from Argentinian and British veterans from the Falkland/Malvinas War. Those performances are rooted in their own experiences of the conflict – harrowing, touching, at times absurd – and are devised as a collaborative effort.

Arias works from a specific ethos, allowing the actors to determine, to a degree, how they present themselves, and how they remain true to themselves. It’s an interesting form to work with, documentary theatre – both its facticity and its truth co-exist. Memory and the integrity of the person, fact and fiction, are key aspects of her work. Her choice of topic – the aftermath of war, and its effect on a person’s life – taps powerfully into those themes.

‘Theatre of War’ had its world premiere at the 2018 Berlinale. It’s a first feature-length film for Arias, though she has worked extensively with video in the past. It presents a lovely contrast between the beauty of the images, and the very low-key, seemingly improvised production design.

Beautifully shot by award-winning cinematographer Manuel Abramovich, with compositions that are at times striking, the film is memorable for the immediacy of its performers’ emotion, and their readiness to engage with each other and with the filmmaking process.

The Falklands/Malvinas War was short-lived. It had, in relative terms, a modest number of casualties, officially under a thousand. Losses were disproportionately on the Argentinian side – more than double that of the British. Nevertheless, its legacy was profound; many of the men involved in the conflict sustained life-changing injuries, physical and psychological.

In ‘Theatre of War’, the actors perform a double re-enactment – the men as actors, reliving their own actions, then young actors step in to replicate the scene – the memories are passed on physically, and symbolically. In a recurring scene, based on former Royal Marine Lou Armour’s traumatic memory, an Argentinian soldier dies in his arms. It is dizzying to see that memory, repeated time and again, with the sorrow still vividly present.

Arias and I met at the Berlinale, before the premiere, to discuss the film. We also discussed the ethics of creative work, not only because this is an overt theme in her art, but also because of an ongoing controversy. We met around the time Ruben Östlund’s film ‘The Square’, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, was being released in the UK. It’s a film which embeds, within its narrative, references to an artist called Lola Arias, whose work however bears no relation to the work of the real life Lola Arias.

I had seen the trailer in London, before setting off for Berlin, and was disconcerted by the way it juxtaposed the artist’s name with the kind of work which is a world away from what she does. While Arias had been involved in some early discussions concerning ‘The Square’, she is adamant she did not give permission for this particular use of her name.

During our conversation, she pointed out a paradox:

LA: I think what is interesting, when we think about it in relationship to my own film… I know what it means to work with other people’s lives, other people’s biographies, the name of someone else. It’s a big responsibility. Because this name will be attached to the artwork you do forever, you know, and people will speak about it.

Given the artist’s preoccupation, in her own work, with personal authenticity and the ethics of cultural production, it is a darkly ironic predicament.

‘Theatre of War’ is part of a wider multi-media work, in progress over several years. Over those years, Arias’s own perspective shifted. She explains that the project started from a purely Argentinian point of view, and that the war left a different legacy in each country:

LA: The effect on society, in the long term, was completely different, because in fact in Britain this was almost completely forgotten. In Argentina, this was a war that left a big scar and also somehow not only in the life of the veterans but also on the whole society. It is still today a big topic, and if you go around in the streets of Buenos Aires, you will see murals saying La Malvinas are Argentina’s.

It was much more difficult to show it (the work) in Argentina than in England, I think, because of that, because people in Argentina were more sceptical, like “oh, why do we have to hear the stories of the British”, when we did the theatre play. Now I am curious to see what will happen when we show the film.

NB: You show, in the film, that both sides, whether they were professional soldiers or conscripts, looked like they had the same capacity for trauma. Is that something that you observed?

LA: Yes, in fact, when I started the project, I wasn’t aware of the effects of war on the British side. So in fact, the project started in 2013 because I did first a video installation, with only Argentine veterans, re-enacting their memories of the war, in the places where they were – so for example, a man who was in the war, and then he became a psychologist, was reconstructing his memories of the war, in a psychiatric hospital.

This was a first step. And after seeing how the Argentines were reconstructing their memories, I started to ask myself, about the effect on the other side. This first work was presented at the Battersea Arts Centre [in London], and then I had the idea, together with the director of the LIFT festival, how can we put together, from both sides, to make a theatre project together, and a film.

So in a way, when I started working with this, an idea of the encounter, I had also the prejudice, that because the Argentinians were conscripts, and they were not prepared, they suffered more. And in fact, when you start hearing the stories of the British, then you realise what war does to people, something that lasts for a very long time, it has a terrible effect on their lives, and there is no way to prepare for that. It’s the limits of humanity you are confronted with.

NB: The testimonies are personal, but also bear the mark of your work, it’s all shaped in a specific way.

LA: Every word in the film was really discussed. There was no, so to say, spontaneity. There are some moments when they are just interacting, but most of it are scenes that we have rehearsed and written with the actors. So that means, I didn’t have a script, in the beginning of this project. I had this idea, this crazy idea of putting them together, and re-mapping their memories with them, but I didn’t have a written script. So we were working on each scene together; which means also that they were very much responsible for everything they said, there’s nothing being taken away from them. They decided what to say, how to say it, how to perform. We discussed it, we rehearsed it, we repeated it, many times. They are also the authors of this film.

NB: What do you think their motivation was, to participate in the project?

LA: First of all, I think, curiosity. Without curiosity, it is impossible to do anything, like the curiosity of finding your former enemies and seeing what happened to them. And I think, with some, I had to convince them. With Marcelo, I had many meetings, trying to explain to him what I wanted to do, and why, and so on, because he had been through so much suffering, and it was difficult for him to decide to get involved with something like that.

NB: How did the disco scene come about, and the choice of music?

LA: The music was chosen by David Jackson, a former Royal Marine and now a psychologist – Do You Think I am Sexy – by Rod Stewart, but this was a crazy moment because we had been shooting all day with them, all these bar scenes, in which they are discussing how is it for them to be the protagonists of a film, and becoming actors, and repeating scenes once and again; and also they are discussing what it means to be in a project directed by an Argentine director, which is also something that Lou Armour said very clearly “I am afraid that this is an Argentine project” and “It’s all about Argentine suffering”. And of course it’s not, but his fear was always there.

NB: You were working together for several years…

LA: What I like is that somehow the bond that is created, with the film and the play, stays alive, you know. And I think that is the most beautiful thing about theatre, and in the cinema, it is difficult to have this feeling, because then there is something that is over, you know, you see that film, and then they are not there anymore. But the nice thing about having a project that has so many layers is that it’s alive, still, even if the film is completely gone.

Minefield, the play to which ‘Theatre of War’ is a companion piece, is returning to the UK for a national tour through 2018, before moving on to continental Europe and Japan.

Lola Arias was awarded the CICAE art cinema award at the Awards Of The Independent Juries press conference during the 68th Berlinale International Film

Writer and director: Lola Arias
Artistic adviser: Alan Pauls
Director of photography: Manuel Abramovich
Sound Design: Sofia Straface
Music: Ulises Conti
Cast: Lou Armour, David Jackson, Rubén Otero, Sukrim Rai, Gabriel Sagastume, Marcelo Vallejo

Originally published in ScenesJournal, February 2018