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

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times