The Unlikely Story Behind a Palestinian Hip-Hop Film From Israel

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When the hip-hop-flavored “Junction 48” won top prizes at the Tribeca and Berlin film festivals last year, its Israeli director, Udi Aloni, wondered whether he’d forgotten about the folks back home. “But then I saw the reactions of young Palestinians here and women who said how empowering it was,” he said. “I think maybe this has become the movie of the new resistance.”

Resistance, however, can go both ways. “Junction 48,” which stars the Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar, offers an Arab’s-eye view of contemporary life in Israel, and it found itself in a public contretemps last September: At the Ophir Awards, the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars, the right-wing culture minister, Miri Regev, stormed out during Mr. Nafar’s reading of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s most famous work, “Identity Card.” Ms. Regev also objected to a performance by Mr. Tamer at the Haifa Film Festival last fall.

After a year in which most successful Israeli films were predominantly in Arabic — notably “Sand Storm,” the country’s 2017 Academy Awards submission — “Junction 48” arrives in the United States when its moment back home may have passed.

“The possibility of a film like this getting state funding in Israel — that’s over, there’s no way,” said the American filmmaker James Schamus, an executive producer on the film, which was partly financed by the Israeli Film Council. “In some ways, ‘Junction 48’ represents a future, it really does. But right now it represents the past.”

Shimon Mercer-Wood, a spokesman for the Consulate General of Israel in New York, acknowledged that there had been a “certain back and forth” between Ms. Regev and Mr. Nafar but said that Israel was still interested in funding “a wide, diverse range of artists.” He also noted that while the Israeli government, which is dominated by right-wing and religious parties, may be cautious about providing money, it is not limiting artists’ expression.

At the same time, he added, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the government has “taken a stricter approach to saying we won’t fund a certain artist if we feel this artist is using the arts to undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel,” Mr. Mercer-Wood said. “That’s true as a general statement. I wouldn’t speak on behalf of the Ministry of Culture and say funding would not be given this film today. But yes, there is a more hard-line approach.”

For Mr. Aloni, a filmmaker and luminary on Israel’s far left (his mother was the politician and civil-rights champion Shulamit Aloni), “Junction 48” is simply a film made by “a gang of Jews and Palestinians” — the crew was split 50-50 — and one that flips the usual lens of Israeli cinema.

“Usually, the Arab is the object and the Jew is the subject,” he said. “In this, I wanted the Arabs to be the subject — which is why the worst person in the film is also an Arab. The Jews are portrayed almost the way a kid in the ghetto sees the Jews” — that is, without a lot of nuance.

Inspired by Mr. Nafar’s life and written with the Israeli-born screenwriter Oren Moverman (“The Messenger”), “Junction 48” tells of an emerging rap artist, Kareem, who has issues with his family and confrontations with rival Jewish rappers, and experiences a political awakening. The demolition of a friend’s home to build a “Museum of Coexistence” is a pivotal event. (The title refers to 1948, when Israel gained its independence and thousands of Palestinians were ousted from Lyd — Lod in Hebrew — the railway-junction town where the film is set.) The film also has, Mr. Aloni emphasized, a feminist bent: Kareem’s girlfriend, Manar (the Palestinian actress-singer Samar Qupty), is under pressure from family members, who consider her stage performances to be shameful; the threat of honor killing is implied.

Released in Israel last May, “Junction 48” received mixed reviews there.

“Well, it’s watchable,” said the Israeli critic Yair Raveh, of the Israeli website CinemaScope. “And, with about 50,000 admissions, it did O.K. business here. The best thing in it is the presence of Tamer Nafar. His music is fantastic and gives the film the groove and tempo the filmmaking lacked.”

The principals behind “Junction 48” did not just find one another. Mr. Tamer was in Mr. Aloni’s first film, “Local Angel.” Years ago, Mr. Aloni invited Mr. Schamus to hold seminars in Ramallah alongside the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. (“A blast,” Mr. Schamus said.) Mr. Moverman and Mr. Aloni have also long known each other. “Junction 48” came together after Mr. Moverman heard Mr. Nafar’s music and asked him for a memoir he could work from.

To my surprise, he wrote it in English,” Mr. Moverman said. “He told me how he learned English from hip-hop and he felt comfortable writing in English. So we shaped an outline, Udi got involved, they worked on it in Hebrew and Arabic, and it eventually became the movie.”

Mr. Nafar added, “He asked for 20 pages, and after two days I gave him 150.”

He and his group DAM were founders of Palestinian hip-hop, which is heavily influenced by Americans (principally Tupac Shakur) but with Middle Eastern flourishes. While he is a celebrity in Israel among both Jews and Arabs, he was enthusiastic about such a group telling his story — tweaked though it may be. “A lot of it ended up more interesting than reality,” he said, laughing.

The film’s conclusion — involving Manar and her family, and much discussed by post-screening audiences — is open-ended, and initially made Mr. Nafar nervous. “I didn’t know how people were going to take it,” he said, “but after the first screening, my wife told me how great it was. I said: ‘Oh yeah. And it was my idea!’”


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