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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear