This is a movie for and about underdogs

Political nuance lost on NY audience at sneak preview of Israeli hip hop film

In ‘Junction 48’, now opening in the US, director Udi Aloni crafts a strong, if sometimes cloying, drama about a struggling Arab rapper in the city of Lod

Samar Qupty and Tamer Nafar in 'Junction 48.' (Courtesy)
Samar Qupty and Tamer Nafar in 'Junction 48.' (Courtesy)

NEW YORK — As a frequent attendee of theatrical premieres and the like, I maintain a pretty strict policy: never stay for an unmoderated Q&A. There’s always someone who says something cringeworthy.

The sneak preview of “Junction 48” at Manhattan’s upscale Metrograph cinema was no different, but it was illuminating. Even in New York, supposedly the most sophisticated and educated city in the United States, there are people who are completely illiterate when it comes to a nuanced story about the Middle East’s political struggles.

It isn’t the movie’s fault. Udi Aloni’s “Junction 48” is a strong character-based drama and has taken home its share of awards, among them Best International Feature at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and the 2016 Berlinale’s Panorama Audience Award for Best Fiction Film.

Not a masterpiece for the ages, but, opening Friday in New York, “Junction 48” is something worth checking out — particularly if you are a fan of Arabic hip-hop, which, now that I’ve seen this movie, I guess I am. It is made abundantly clear that the city of Lod is within the uncontested borders of Israel (or, at least, uncontested by most reasonable parties) and not the “Occupied Territories.”

Nevertheless, as was made evident by their questions, some the audience were either unable to pick up on the cues, or, even worse, are unaware that there is a difference between Arab areas within Israel and the Palestinian cities in the West Bank. One person mistook a Palestinian flag for an Israeli one.

If this were any other topic, it wouldn’t matter. But as a Jewish-American who has made an effort to educate myself and stay abreast of the goings-on in the Middle East, it is incredibly frustrating to know that there is such ignorance surrounding me when I leave the confines of my apartment and TOI news alerts.

Writers, critics, and people who care about facts still have a lot of work ahead of us to make sure history doesn’t evaporate once everyone old enough to have first-hand experience is gone.

But on to the movie at hand.

Director Udi Aloni (son of far-left politician Shulamit Aloni) and screenwriter Oren Moverman (working with star Tamer Nafer) have a story they want to tell, and it’s a good story: They are Arabs living in Lod and are poor and are consistently harassed by the police. They are subject to all the psychological detriments that come with few economic opportunities and plenty of bigotry. This is a movie for and about underdogs; the filmmakers certainly shouldn’t be required to have their characters act in a way that isn’t natural.

Tamer Nafar as 'Kareem,' an Arab rapper from Lod. (Courtesy)
Tamer Nafar as ‘Kareem,’ an Arab rapper from Lod. (Courtesy)

The movie is also a bit scattered. It’s got the main character, a would-be hip-hop star, but also a stream of buddies mired in cliché scenarios, like a simple low-level drug pusher in trouble with the villainous boss, a young woman whose conservative family won’t let her live out her performing dreams and, out of nowhere, an angelic old man whose home is about to be demolished by the government to make way for a museum of coexistence.

The portrayal of Jews is pretty grim: they range from exploitative to full-on racists, but, again, that’s likely true to how these people see them. When the scenes are rooted in realism, like Tamer and his friends sticking out at a Jewish rapper’s party, the awkwardness makes for empathetic filmmaking. When the movie chases its own tail with forced melodrama, it’s a bit of a stretch and not very inspired.

Samar Qupty and Tamer Nafar in 'Junction 48.' (Courtesy)
Samar Qupty and Tamer Nafar in ‘Junction 48.’ (Courtesy)

The music, however, is pretty great, especially one tune called “I Am Not Political.” Tamer Nafer’s Kareem is presenting himself as an “agreeable Arab,” one who doesn’t make waves, but then proceeds to list the daily indignities he and his community faces. (It doesn’t go over too well in the Jewish club, especially with the two thuggish rappers, cuttingly named RPG and 67 Carat.)

During the New York event’s Q&A, director Aloni explained how the songs didn’t come until Nafer had lived with the script and had “found Kareem.” Key scenes of life in Lod are “taken from many real stories,” like when a drug dealer escaped police custody, but got his hand cut, and others in the neighborhood protectively cut themselves to make sure he couldn’t get picked up.

“Everyone says they were there that day,” Nafer joked. “Everyone but me!”

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