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

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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge