This Dazzling Movie Captures the Suffering Palestinians Experience Every Day in Israel
"Ana mish politi" — I am not political. So declares the character of Kareem, a 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. "Hummus, 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 his clenched fist high in the air in a Black Panther-style salute. The rapper also read a poem by legendary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Israel's far-right government was furious. Extreme right-wing Culture Minister Miri Regev stormed out of the ceremony in a rage.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Junction 48 was not nominated for Best Film at the Ophir Awards. But it did steal headlines. The film drew attention to long-running criticism of the Israeli Academy of Film and Television, which has 982 members, not a single one of whom is Palestinian.
Outside of Israel, Junction 48 has received rave reviews. The film highlights the plight of Palestinian citizens of Israel and depicts how they rebel, and how they love, amid harsh oppression. Kareem's musical gifts propel him to stardom in a country that refuses to accept him and his people. Meanwhile, Kareem's world crumbles around him: his friend's home is demolished (ironically to make room for a "Museum of Coexistence"), drug dealers terrorize his neighborhood, and his outspoken girlfriend fears for her life.
Junction 48 took home the audience awards at the prestigious Tribeca, Berlin, and Woodstock film festivals — a testament to its relevance, universality, and charm. Even in festivals in countries as removed from Israel-Palestine as Slovakia, it won Best Feature Film.
The movie opened in New York on March 3. A few days before its national premiere, I sat down with Tamer Nafar and Udi Aloni, the director of Junction 48, in a cozy Brooklyn apartment to discuss the film 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, along with screenwriter Oren Moverman. Kareem, the protagonist, is based on Nafar's life. The Palestinian musician grew up in an impoverished community in Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish city in modern-day Israel. He told stories of hardship, drug-dealers, and friends who died in tragic shootings.
The film opens with a brief history of the city 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. Today, the ethnic cleansing is known as the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe. Lod was one of many communities that was shattered in the violence, and has suffered ever since.
Junction 48 captures the extreme discrimination Palestinians face, 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 different perspective — that of Palestinian citizens.
Many of the actors in the film, Nafar included, were not formally trained. "My job is to be a matchmaker," Aloni explained. And match-make 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 Abu Khaled, who plays Manar's friend, is now working in theater in Germany.
When I first met Aloni last April, it was at a tense moment in the director's career; he, the film and its star were all under pressure from the Israeli government. At the Berlin Film Festival, Aloni had condemned the Israeli government as "fascist." He lashed out at its systematic discrimination against Palestinians, and observed that 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 not Aloni's first brush with controversy. He has several films under his belt, including Art/Violence, Forgiveness, Kashmir, and Local Angel, all of which are uncompromising and decidedly political.
The filmmaker comes from a prominent Jewish Israeli family. Aloni's mother, Shulamit Aloni, was an influential left-wing politician and activist who briefly served as minister of education. Like her son, she was frank about the nature of the Israeli government: When 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" under a hypothetical one-state solution in Israel-Palestine, Palestinian lawmaker Ahmad Tibi selected Udi Aloni for national reconciliation minister — an honor Aloni said truly excited him.
The Israeli government has other ideas, to put it mildly. Miri Regev, Israel's far-right culture minister — who once declared on a television that she is "happy to be a fascist" and who has referred to African refugees as a "cancer" — has viciously attacked Junction 48. Regev falsely claimed Nafar's Black Panther-style raised fist at the Ophir Awards was a Nazi salute. Israeli media also mistranslated the Darwish poem Nafar read, further inciting the far right.
The film captures Kareem's uneasy interactions with the country's reactionaries. 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 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 advance 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 occupation of the Palestinian territories, which the United Nations has 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, with far-right extremists occupying some of its most powerful posts. 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 government's visceral response to the film has 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, and when they try to prevent people from seeing it." The latter he has tried to avoid.
"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, far-right activists tried to prevent it from being screened. In a pleasant surprise, however, hundreds of counter-protesters, both Arabs and Jews, showed up in response to express support for the film and its creators. The show went on.
Aloni lamented that Kahanists, followers of the fascist movement founded by U.S.-born extremist Meir Kahane, are "the new face of Israel." He recalled a recent visit to Umm al-Hiran, a village of Beouins in the Negev who are Israeli citizens and whose homes are being destroyed by the government in order to build a Jewish community.
The inexorable grinding of a bulldozer is a key metaphor in Junction 48. In the film, the home of Kareem's friend Talal is razed by the state. In its place, authorities plan to build a "Museum of Coexistence." (This is less ridiculous than it sounds: The Israeli government actually built a similar "tolerance" museum on the ruins of a Muslim cemetery.)
Regular house demolitions have become a quotidian form of repression endured by Palestinians. And yet Junction 48 is more nuanced than its pro-Israel detractors are willing to acknowledge. In addition to its critique of structural anti-Palestinian oppression, the film contains a powerful feminist message. Palestinian women are persecuted not only for their ethnicity, but also because they dare to assert their own agency in a fiercely patriarchal society.
Manar has to fight the Israeli government's systematic discrimination as well as her misogynist family and controlling boyfriend. And both she and Kareem's mother are proud members of the Israeli Communist Party, which historically has been the only major anti-Zionist political party in Israel, comprised of both Arab and Jewish members.
Most prominent films about the conflict present themselves as a form of "dialogue" between Israelis and Palestinians. Junction 48 pushes back against this clichÃ©. "It's not about dialogue; it's about working together to tell the Palestinian narrative," Aloni explained.
In this way, the film is at once distinctly Palestinian and universal in its outlook. For American viewers, the many parallels between the lives of Palestinians, as depicted in the film, and those of black Americans are striking. During our interview, Nafar expressed solidarity with black Americans and great admiration for black culture. He also noted that Palestinians share many common experiences with Native Americans.
While much of Junction 48 dwells on the injustices endured by the Palestinian people, an array of lighthearted moments show how they manage to craft normal lives for themselves, making the film far from a humdrum political treatise.
"It has something the left lost," Aloni said. "It's libidinal. It's sexy."
It's exciting too. Nafar wrote a series of new songs for the movie that 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 provides the counterbalance. The politics is still there, but the music temporarily takes center stage.
Much of our interview dwelled on whether art and politics are inextricably bound.
"Art that is empty of politics, for me it is not art," Aloni 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 is 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, 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."
Indeed it is, both riveting and intimate. As with all great art and political movements, Junction 48 balances the tender and the powerful, the personal and the universal.