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