Gaza uncovered

A cinematic celebration of the lives of ordinary Palestinians.

Despite the general tenor and tension of such challenging times, it's not often these days that the arts seem to return to first principles, to questioning their own purpose and shaping of meaning, and the ways they operate within the world and its structures of power. And yet, in a climate of seemingly permanent cuts, it's often at that primary level - where we most profoundly shape and reflect the complexities of the collective and the personal - that cultural practice can make the best case for its own continued existence and relevance.

Which is why the premiere viewing of a new documentary, The Gaza Breathing Space Film, to a capacity crowd recently at the Horse Hospital in London, was so striking. Documenting a November 2011 visit to Palestine by British-based Az Theatre director Jonathan Chadwick, it's one of the most affecting - and effective - works of committed cultural encounter to emerge for a long time.

On one level a simple video diary of a 10 day immersion in all aspects of besieged Gazan life, it's also the latest instalment in what will be a 10-year collaboration (begun in early 2009 after the Israeli assault on the strip) between Az Theatre and Gaza's Theatre for Everybody. The latter, working within extreme constraints with children traumatised by what they've faced, are finding remarkable ways to empower communities, to enhance experience and to address the great psychological pressures that generation face.

Such work within committed theatre practice isn't new of course (from Brecht to Boal and on to the Tricyle Theatre's great testimony stagings), but rarely has it been more necessary. And what's so important about both the film and the performances (made with Chadwick's long-term collaborator, Iraqi film-maker Maysoon Pachachi) is not simply that they work with quiet polemical advocacy and a subtly metaphoric eye, but that they reveal so empathetically the diverse daily registers of being in Gaza; its streets and buildings, shores and squares. Almost completely unseen beyond rapid-fire news items, the territory, with its profoundly unemployed - and predominantly young - population of 1.6 million crowded onto land no larger than the Isle of Wight, is restored to a fuller sight.

Whether it's watching children amazed that there are over 800 smuggling tunnels; learning that, in what has been described as an "open prison", there is a widespread fear of the sea; or meeting workers at Deir Al Balah Rehabilitation Centre, the viewer is gifted a glimpse, in the strongest tradition of documentary practice, of a world both recognisable and startlingly different.

In one telling voiceover comment, Chadwick worries that his carrying of a camera brands him as the "other", building an inevitable distance. However, what it does for us, of course, is to bring the moving and potent reality of Gaza that much closer, revealing the "long anger" at decades of injustice, but telling it in the enduring register of love.

"The Gaza Breathing Space Film" will be shown at SOAS, London WC1 at 7pm on 23 February www.aztheatre.org.uk

Show Hide image

Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496