Film “Junction 48” explores Palestinian oppression and resistance in Israel, through hip hop

(This article is published in AlterNet.)

“Ana mish politi” — I am not political. So declares Kareem, the Palestinian rapper and protagonist of the film “Junction 48.” For Palestinians, Kareem explains, being political is not a choice.

Tamer Nafar, the musician turned actor who stars as Kareem in the award-winning movie, performed the song “Ana mish politi” live at Israel’s equivalent of the Oscars, the Ophir Awards, in 2016. “Humus, salad, chips on the side, you like to eat at our restaurants — this is coexistence,” he sang. “But when I bring too many of us to the restaurant, coexistence turns into a demographic threat.”

Nafar concluded his powerful performance by holding up his clenched fist high in the air, in a Black Panther-style salute. The rapper who ironically declared “I am not political” also read out a poem by renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Israel’s far-right government was furious. Extreme right-wing Culture Minister Miri Regev stormed out of the ceremony in rage.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, “Junction 48” was not even nominated for Best Film at the Ophir Awards — although it did steal the media headlines. Yet the film drew attention to longtime criticism of the Israeli Academy of Film and Television, which has 982 members, not a single one of whom is Palestinian.

Outside of Israel, on the other hand, “Junction 48” has been wildly applauded. And for good reason. The powerful film highlights the plight of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and movingly depicts how they rebel, and love, amid harsh oppression.

“Junction 48” has received rave reviews from around the world. It took home the audience awards — a testament to its relevance, universality, and charm — at the prestigious Tribeca, Berlin, and Woodstock film festivals. Even in festivals in countries as removed from the Israel-Palestine as Slovakia, the film won Best Feature Film.

The film opened in New York on March 3. A few days before the national premiere, I sat down with Tamer Nafar and Udi Aloni, the director of “Junction 48.” I joined them in the cozy apartment they were staying in for the week in Brooklyn, to discuss the movie, how it was made, and the insight it provides into life and resistance in Israel-Palestine and beyond.

The film is smarter than us,” Aloni joked. “Tamer and I were so careful.”

Nafar and Aloni wrote “Junction 48” together, over a period of years. The protagonist Kareem, played by Nafar, is in fact based on his life. Like Kareem, Nafar grew up in a struggling, impoverished community in Lod, a mixed Palestinian-Jewish city in modern-day Israel. He told tragic stories of friends who died in shootings there.

The film opens with some brief historical background on Lod, and the struggle of the indigenous Arabs of historic Palestine. In 1948, Zionist militias formed the state of Israel while violently expelling hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. Palestinian refer to the event as the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe.” Lod was one of the many communities that suffered, and was the site of ethnic cleansing.

“Junction 48” shows the apartheid-style conditions Palestinians live under today, not just in the occupied territories, but also within Israel itself. Most films on the conflict in Israel-Palestine highlight the brutality of Israel’s illegal military occupation, but “Junction 48” tells a story from a perspective not often told.

The cinematography captures the dark mystery of the slums of Lod. The sets are real, the stage design faithfully depicting lives of grinding poverty, and resistance.

“After the movie, I’ve become even more based on Kareem,” Nafar opened up. Although rooted in Nafar’s life, the film has taken on a life of its own.

Nafar is a celebrity in Palestine, and one of the co-founders of the popular Palestinian hip hop group DAM. This was also one of his first experiences acting — although one could hardly tell that watching the film.

Many of the actors in “Junction 48,” in fact, were not formally trained, and are somewhat new to the medium. “My job is to be a matchmaker,” Aloni explained. And matchmaking he did. The film also depicts a tender romance between Kareem and the stunning Manar, played by up-and-coming actress Samar Qupty.

Qupty is a talented singer in her own right, and shines in her duets with Nafar. Since “Junction 48” was completed in 2015, she has become a popular TV actress in Israel-Palestine. And Mariam Abukhaled, who plays Manar’s friend, is likewise now working in theater in Germany.

I saw “Junction 48” for the first time in April 2016. (A year later, it was even better.) When I met Aloni last April, it was at an explosive moment. He, the film, and its star were under heat from the Israeli government.

At the illustrious Berlin Film Festival, Aloni had condemned the Israeli government as “fascist.” He lashed out at the Israeli government’s discrimination against Palestinians, and noted political prisoners were going on hunger strikes for months at a time. Aloni also called on the German government to stop arms sales to Israel.

“The entire Israeli press was only on that,” he recalled in our interview. “Everyone called us, saying, ‘We will not show the film; we will not show the film.'”

This is by no means Aloni’s first rodeo. He has several films under his belt, including “Art/Violence,” “Forgiveness,” “Kashmir,” and “Local Angel.” Aloni’s work is uncompromising and decidedly political, and he is no stranger to controversy.

The filmmaker also comes from a prominent Jewish Israeli family. Udi’s mother, Shulamit Aloni, was an influential left-wing politician and activist who briefly served as minister of education. Like her son, Shulamit was frank about the nature of the Israeli government: When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter implied Israel was an apartheid state, she defended him, writing, “Yes, there is apartheid in Israel.”

In a recent outline for his “dream cabinet” in a hypothetical one-state solution in Israel-Palestine, Palestinian lawmaker Ahmad Tibi selected Udi Aloni for national reconciliation minister, an honor that Aloni said truly excited him.

The Israeli government could hardly have more different views. Miri Regev, Israel’s far-right culture minister — who once proudly declared on a television interview that she is “happy to be a fascist” and who has referred to African refugees as a “cancer” — has been bitterly attacking “Junction 48” for months. Regev falsely claimed Nafar’s Black Panther-style raised fist at the Ophir Awards was a Nazi salute. And the Israeli media mistranslated the Darwish poem read by Nafar, pouring fuel onto the flames of scandal.

The film shows Kareem’s uneasy interactions with the racist far right in Israel. In several scenes, Kareem takes the stage after a performance by an ultra-nationalist Israeli rapper, who encourages his fans to chant pro-government slogans and intimidate Palestinians. At one point, when the bigoted Israeli rapper, known simply as RPG (he refused to tell Kareem his real name), harasses Manar and makes anti-Arab remarks, the hip hop show descends into a violent brawl, fists flying.

At the Q&A session after the special advanced screening of the film in New York on February 28, an audience member asked, “Is there really an Israeli nationalist hip hop scene.” Aloni replied in his characteristic tongue-in-cheek manner, “Oh yes, there certainly is, and they are much more fascist than they are in the film — but we had to tone it down so people would actually believe they are human.”

 

Junction 48″ could hardly come at a better time. This June marks the 50th anniversary of Israel’s illegal military occupation of the Palestinian territories, which the United Nations has repeatedly stressed since 1967 violates international law and the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The current Israeli government is the most right-wing administration in the country’s history. Far-right extremists fill some of the most influential roles. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has justified the killing of Palestinian civilians and their “little snake” children, and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has called for “disloyal” Palestinian citizens of Israel to be beheaded.

The controversy and the government’s strong reaction put the team behind “Junction 48” in a bind, Aloni explained. “There are two kinds of censorship,” he said: When people try to influence the content of the film (“that you should refuse immediately,” Aloni added), and when they try to prevent people from seeing it. He did not want the latter form of censorship to take form. “With PR you have to be smart,” Aloni noted. “You want people to see it and not let them block the audience.”

When the film was showing in Israel, it was no surprise then that far-right activists tried to stop the screening. What did come as a surprise, however, was that hundreds of counter-protesters, both Arab and Jewish, showed up in response in order to express support for the film and its creators. And the show went on.

Aloni lamented that Kahanists, followers of the fascist movement founded by extremist Meir Kahane, are “the new face of Israel.” He recalled recently visiting Umm al-Hiran, a Bedouin village full of Israeli citizens in the Negev whose homes are being being destroyed in order to build a Jewish community it the rubble.

The inexorable grinding of the bulldozer is a key symbol in “Junction 48.” In the film, the home of Kareem’s friend Talal is bulldozed by the Israeli government. In its place, authorities plan to build a “Museum of Coexistence.” It is a perfect metaphor for the conflict. And it is not nearly as outlandish as it sounds: The Israeli government built a similar museum on the ruins of a Muslim cemetery.

One character in the film is a lawyer from the non-profit organization Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. She fights for Talal’s family, in hopes of saving the home they have lived in for decades. The attorney acknowledges that there is little hope within the Israeli judicial system, but she implores Talal’s friends to organize, stressing, “Demonstrations are a necessity.”

When dozens of protesters show up to try to peacefully stop the house demolition, they are crushed by Israeli police. Kareem’s brother is shot; Manar is beaten and jailed; several more protesters are roughed up and thrown behind bars with her.

Regular house demolitions are just another form of quotidian oppression endured by Palestinians. Yet “Junction 48” does not just shine light on the plight of Palestinians; it is much more nuanced than its pro-Israel critics acknowledge. Running through the commentary on Palestinian oppression is a powerful feminist theme. Palestinian women are oppressed not only because they are Palestinian, but also because they dare to try to take control of their lives as women.

Manar has to fight not only the Israeli government’s systematic discrimination, but also her conservative, misogynist family and her unappreciative, controlling boyfriend. And Manar and Kareem’s mother are both proud members of the Israeli Communist Party — which has historically been the only major anti-Zionist political party in Israel, comprised of both Arab and Jewish members.

An eery scene with an exorcism, performed by Kareem’s mother (played by Salwa Nakkara) on a Mizrahi family, is “a metaphor for the Middle East,” Nafar said. “Palestinian women lead the healing process.”

 

Junction48″ is also unique in that it was a joint Jewish-Palestinian production. Aloni was distressed early in the filming when Qupty was criticized by a crew member for speaking Arabic. It was then that he knew the crew needed to be half Palestinian — not just for symbolic reasons, but also because it changed the entire attitude of the creative process. And lo and beyond, things became so comfortable later in the production, Aloni recalled, a Mizrahi crew member (a Jew of Iraqi descent) began speaking Arabic.

“Bouncing between languages was one of the most exciting things,” Nafar recalled in our interview.

Most prominent films about the conflict present themselves as a form of “dialogue” between Israelis and Palestinians. “Junction 48” pushes back against this cliché. “It’s not about dialogue; it’s about working together to tell the Palestinian narrative,” Aloni explained.

In this way, the film is uniquely Palestinian, yet also simultaneously universal in its outlook. For American viewers, the many parallels between the lives of Palestinians, as depicted in “Junction 48,” and those of Black Americans are striking. Nafar expressed solidarity with Black Americans and great admiration for Black culture. He also noted that Palestinians share many common experiences with Native Americans.

Nafar, who was wearing a black t-shirt with bold white letters that read “ME = ART,” drew on his inspirations and influences throughout our interview. He cited the song “White Man’z World” by Tupac, and quoted the rapper Chuck D, from Public Enemy: “Most of my heroes still don’t appear on no stamp.”

He also he said he was very much hoping to meet Killer Mike, the Run the Jewels frontman and outspoken political activist who made headlines campaigning for Bernie Sanders. (Nafar enthusiastically praised Bernie Sanders for speaking out for Palestinian human rights, a rarity in U.S. politics, and for fighting for progressive change.)

All of the music featured in the movie is completely new. Nafar wrote a series of hard-hitting songs that expertly combine grit with beauty. The periodic concerts that punctuate the movie push the tempo and propel the narrative forward. Kareem’s hard-hitting beats have you bobbing your head in the seat, and Manar’s gorgeous singing (in Arabic and Spanish) provide the counterbalance. The politics is still there, but the music takes center stage.

 

Aloni and Nafar both have a strong sense of humor. And there is of course a dash of comedy in the film. Although much of “Junction 48” dwells on the egregious repression endured by the Palestinian people, and how they resist not only in the big ways, but the little ones too, an array of lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek moments show how Palestinians still, in a kind of cinematic representation of Sumud (Arabic for “steadfastness”), manage to create enjoyable, normal lives for themselves amid a situation of gross injustice that should be anything but normal.

The film is also far from a humdrum political treatise. “It has something the left lost,” Aloni said. “It’s libidinal. It’s sexy.”

Yet, while “Junction 48” was applauded at festivals throughout the world, precisely for its universality and sexiness, The New York Times was not impressed. The U.S. newspaper of record, which has long been criticized for its overt pro-Israel bias, made its bias clear in a full-page story on the film. At the beginning of the piece, Times reporter John Anderson gave a spokesman for the Israeli government’s Consulate General a generous two paragraphs to exploit for public relations purposes. (Can you imagine the Times citing a U.S. government official at the beginning of a piece on an American film that portrays the realities of racial oppression of Black Americans?) In lieu of the many critics who have expressed admiration for the film, the Times likewise cited a review by a little-known Israeli website, which described the powerful work simply as “watchable” and bashed it for supposedly lacking in aesthetic merit.

By virtue of its subject matter, “Junction 48” cannot help but dabble in politics — and will thus doubtless be doomed to disparagement by those who prefer movies to draw a line neatly between the aesthetic and the political.

The film itself is dedicated to Juliano Mer-Khamis, a widely celebrated Jewish-Palestinian artist who founded The Freedom Theater in the city of Jenin, in the occupied West Bank. Mer-Khamis starred in and directed several movies, and was an outspoken activist (“I am 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish,” he declared.) In 2011, Mer-Khamis was shot by masked gunmen, and murdered.

At the February 28 advanced screening, Aloni also dedicated the movie to Michael Ratner, the late director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who passed away in May after decades of fighting for Palestinian human rights and leading campaigns for justice in countless other struggles.

Much of our interview naturally dwelled on this discussion, of the the tension between art and politics and how creators mediate between the two. (Interviews tend to focus on the political, Aloni also observed. “The interview, by definition, is not the art.”)

“Art that is empty of politics, for me it is not art,” the “Junction 48” director explained. “And the creation that only tries to be activist and doesn’t understand the aesthetic meaning, it’s not politics.”

“Those who decide not to be political are also political,” Nafar stressed. Aloni added, “To be apolitical is a privilege of the privileged.” This, after all, is the the clever conceit tying together the whole film — “Ana mish politi.” Palestinians’ lives have been politicized, so when they speak about their experiences, being apolitical is not an option.

After pondering the question a bit longer, Aloni went on: “The idea is to have art/politics, so there is no separation. Not that it is easy, because the language separates them, and the feelings separate them.”

“It’s about finding the balance,” Nafar said. “Sometimes people get carried away with politics, but we want to show that, other than the political side, the movie really is beautiful.” And it indeed is. Junction 48 is both riveting and intimate. As with the art and politics, the film balances the tender and the powerful, the personal and the universal.

“We want the film to speak for itself,” Aloni reiterated. And it certainly does so.