Parables of War, Directed by Nina Gilden Seavey
Healing Wars is a theatrical dance piece by Liz Lerman, a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant-winning choreographer famous for creating choreography in substantial collaboration with her dancers. Parables of War is a documentary film by Nina Gilden Seavey, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and the director of the Documentary Center at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The film’s original aim was to document Lerman’s creative process choreographing one of her award-winning dance pieces, but through the documentary process Seavey observed something she didn’t expect: The collaborative process she set out to document brought out emotional connections between the collaborators and their work, deeply involving everyone in the theatrical story and its message. ‘Initially, we set out to document her highly collaborative process of creation’, says the film. ‘What emerged was an unexpected connection between the artists and their art’.
Healing Wars, an exploration of war that spans more than a century, challenges the idealism of the American Civil War, which Lerman says is often characterised as separate and distinct — a moral and righteous conflict above and beyond others, unique as a noble struggle for unity and freedom. Wars ‘will always exist’, she says, and each generation must come to terms with them in its own way. By presenting the American Civil War as one in a long history of violent conflict, she asserts her view that ‘all wars are theme and variation’.
‘[W]e spend enormous energy not thinking about these things’, says Lerman of the aftermath of war. After the bloodshed has finished, for instance, ‘what happens to the bodies?’ Her piece reveals this dark underbelly as well as the humanity of the people who are nonetheless compelled to fight. Both the theatre and the film reveal the human side of an inhuman phenomenon.
The piece presents difficult stories. And we discover, too, that the artists who represent their characters have themselves all been touched by war. Joshua Bleill, who plays himself in Healing Wars, was a Marine in the American military until his vehicle hit a roadside bomb which killed his colleagues and badly injured him. He required leg amputations above both knees and needed to have his broken jaw, pelvis, and fingers put back together by surgeons. He landed in a coma, and when he awoke he began work on healing his psyche after the psychological trauma. Bill Pullman, an award-winning actor (Independence Day; the forthcoming LBJ) and another of Lerman’s dancers, has also been touched by war, having grown up with a father haunted by the Second World War. Ordered to shoot from a Navy ship at defenseless Japanese soldiers treading water after they had abandoned their own ship, his father — a Navy doctor — struggled to reconcile the disturbing dichotomy between his call to heal and his order to kill. Echoing the vocation and dilemma of his own father as a doctor at war, in Healing Wars Pullman plays an American army surgeon in Iraq with his own share of grief and loss. The other participants, too, each have their own personal parables of war paralleling the ones they create onstage.
The documenting of a collaborative theatre project through the medium of film makes Parables of War particularly interesting because it presents the dance piece but does so from a perspective that transcends the final product of the theatrical production. Whereas the theatre-goer would see the final product, the movie-goer would see its process of creation, rediscovering the work as a collaboration between artists, professional and nonprofessional. The film documents everything that goes on behind the scenes, even to details which appear at first to be banal in comparison to the work itself. In rehearsals for the piece and even in conversations outside rehearsals, the creative impulse, purpose, and emotive connection drive the narrative. The film even presents the final product — the theatrical production — in a way that subverts its cohesive presentation. Seavey never gives us the whole thing. She shows glimmers of the rehearsals without actually showing the final product. The glimpses that we do get, organised together, form an intriguing portrait of a seasoned and experienced theatre professional working with nonprofessional dancers to create something meaningful.
The dancers provide raw material for the theatrical piece by responding organically to situations in the rehearsal space and finding natural movements onstage. In one scene, Lerman encourages Bleill, the former Marine, and Pullman, the actor, to ‘find’ several dance moves using Bleill’s prosthetic legs. In Lerman’s creative space the endpoint is not set in stone but the product of a collective discovery, encouraged but never dictated by her.
In observational style, the film captures the spontaneity of this process, the relationships that develop out of it, and the participants’ personal experiences which they bring to a performance that is personal for them all. From the first scene of the film, Seavey and her team present their subject by casting a wide net. The film opens in a hotel room, where Bleill and Pullman talk with Lerman about her collaborative process. What else do they discuss in the opening scene? Their dinner plans! ‘What time should we do dinner?’ poses the award-winning choreographer to her two nonprofessional dancers — in our first glimpse of the film’s extended reach. Far beyond the stage, the seeming banalities of quotidian conversation detail the human relationships behind the scenes. Healing Wars in its final form becomes simultaneously essential and irrelevant to what the film is really about.
The cinematography (by Gary Grieg and Doug Gritzmacher; editing by Ian Rummer) creates virtual portraits of the people participating in the project. The camera moves with the characters and follows the trajectories of their conversations, and a harp-led chamber orchestra from Prague (music composed by John Califra) accompanies their movements onstage. The shifts between scenes are compelling, telling a story by their edited sequence and smooth transitions. Different takes of the same theatrical scene combine to show the development of the characters onstage and an evolution from rehearsal to performance. Theatrical scenes at different points during the rehearsal process coalesce within a single cinematic scene. With the editing, Seavey conducts her own choreography.
The film makes such good use of the distinction of mediums that the film’s methodology of documenting the theatre contributes to the original subject being documented, enriching the experience of the actual theatrical production. Yet the film also emerges as a work in itself, an intelligent commentary on its subject worth watching even without seeing the actual dance piece. It enriches the theatrical experience but is not secondary to it. Like all documentaries, it depends on the subject for inspiration, but the shape and tenour of the documentary are entirely Seavey’s own.
There are moments of beauty within the rehearsals that could only have been captured by Seavey’s camera and which would otherwise not have been preserved. Bleill, the former Marine turned dancer, gives a moving performance in rehearsal, and when he forgets to deliver his line, it’s almost as if — along with the audience — he, too, was moved beyond words. Bodies glide across one another through the space, and the camera catches the light just so. After mesmerising the audience, he puts his prosthetic legs back on, and walks off the set. ■
Runtime: 32 minutes
Genre: Documentary Short
Country: United States
This film is the 2016 recipient of the Atlas Award for Best Documentary Short Film.
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Parables of War, a production of the Documentary Center at the George Washington University in collaboration with the National Civil War Project and distributed by Gravitas Ventures, is the recipient of awards including the Atlas Award for Best Documentary Short Film and the award for Best Documentary Short at the Los Angeles Film Review’s Independent Film Awards.
Nina Gilden Seavey, the film’s director, is the Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker of A Paralyzing Fear: The Story of Polio in America. (Her films have been nominated for five National Emmy Awards.) She is the recipient of the Erik Barnouw Prize for Best Historical Film of the Year, the Golden Hugo, Cine Special Jury Prize, the Italian National Olympic Cup for Best Sports Film, among many other awards. Seavey is the director of the Documentary Center at the George Washington University, which she founded in 1990. She has been named one of the top 50 professors of journalism in the U.S., was named a Woman of Vision by Women in Film and Video, and received a commendation for Outstanding Service to the Industry by Discovery Communications.
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This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: Keith Thompson and Tamara Hurwitz Pullman rehearse a scene of ‘Healing Wars’ in ‘Parables of War’. The Documentary Center at the George Washington University and Gravitas Ventures.