“A great movie is one that is not necessarily well made, but one that you can’t get out of your mind,” says Israeli director Udi Aloni of his award-winning Junction 48. This is what he hopes for with this film that addresses the contemporary rap music scene in the Tel Aviv suburb of Lod. The only Palestine-themed film at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival this year was far better than unforgettable, and actually garnered the Best International Narrative Feature award. The jury proclaimed, “This award goes to a phenomenal, stand-out, powerful, thoughtful movie. It offers a new perspective and insightful approach to a story about how to be different and live together.”
The highly expressive Aloni, who directed the equally unforgettable Local Angel back in 2002, has a firm grip on the realities of the Palestinian struggle. This film follows Kareem (Tamer Nafar), the “first Arab rapper,” who when confronted about his lyrics says he’s not political, just writing about his real life.
The Israeli city of Lod was once the Palestinian city of Lyd, a town where a railway passed through. The film gets its title from the fact that in 1948, tens of thousands of Palestinians were exiled from Lyd, shipped out on rails in order to resettle the town with Jews. It’s now become a mixed city with severe crime, drugs and prostitution, and of course a heavy police presence.
Kareem’s parents are concerned about directing their son away from these temptations. They are musicians who perform traditional music, in contrast to their son’s rap style. One scene shows them performing at a political meeting with photos of Lenin on the wall. Kareem is close to his father, who plays the kanoun, an instrument in the harp family. When his father dies in a tragic car crash, his mother, seemingly overcompensating for the heavy loss, becomes a faith healer and mind reader, “treating” the superstitious local community. After it appears she is becoming obsessed with her newfound panacea, Kareem says, “I’d rather have her as a communist than a faith healer.”
The film is inspired by the real-life experiences of musician Tamer Nafar, who co-wrote and acted in the movie. Tamer started the Arab hip-hop movement in 2000, and was also featured in Local Angel along with his group called DAM. That film also featured Aloni’s well known activist mother, Shulamit, who appears in a memorable scene with Arafat when he was barricaded in his office building just before he died. She passed away just two years ago, and Aloni dedicated his new film to her in memory of her activism, including “single-handedly making homosexuality legal in Israel.”
The action-packed Junction 48 has a contemporary music soundtrack, but often when traditional music is used, it dissolves into rap music in a very clever musical way. Showing the continuity of culture, and the integration of rap in a traditional society, it uses music to underscore the daily challenges of life as second-class citizens. Kareem’s next-door friend gets involved in drug dealing, and when his house is bulldozed, his stash is destroyed. Unable to pay off his drug supplier, he meets an unfortunate end. His friends give a concert on the pile of rubble left from his home.
Before the film was screened at Tribeca, the director dedicated it to the late Juliano Mer Khamis, actor, director and founder of the Jenin Freedom Theater. He reminded the audience of the time he showed Juliano’s powerful film Arna’s Children back in 2004 at Tribeca. Aloni credited Juliano with teaching him how to “dance the move of the bi-national culture.” Juliano’s Jewish mother, Arna, was the founder of the Jenin Freedom Theater and the focus of the film. His Palestinian father, along with mother, were both communists in the early founding years of the state of Israel. Juliano used to say facetiously that he “embodies the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Director Udi Aloni along with the three lead actors answered questions at length after the screening. They emphasized how the last scene of the film appeared ominous about women’s rights. Aloni, most likely influenced by his mother’s activism, stated we must “take off our ideological glasses. It’s not only that Palestinians are good, and Israelis bad. There is not one story, or one narrative. There is also a fight for women’s rights. How do you fight for both things? You can’t fight for gay rights and say f*** the Palestinians.”
When asked if he had trouble filming in Israel, he ironically replied, “I’m a white Ashkenazi Jew in Israel. It’s pure democracy for me. But more and more of this will disappear.”
Tamer recapitulated his character’s role saying, “He’s not political. He doesn’t want to be political, but everything is. He stands with his friend whose house is demolished, not for political reasons, but he’s forced to be political. He has to find humanity, he wants to feel like a human being, fall in love. Young Arabs want to find normalcy through their own music.”
At the 66th Berlin International Film Festival Junction 48 won the Audience Award. It’s what the director hoped for – “a movie you can’t get out of your mind.”
A trailer for the film can be seen here.