(photo credit: PR)
Udi Aloni’s Junction 48 is a lively, entertaining movie about a Palestinian rapper from Lod and his world. It coasts on the enormous charm of its young stars, especially rapper Tamer Nafar, who plays the lead, and Samar Qupty, who plays his girlfriend, also a musician. The movie gets its energy and drive from its music. The minute the action slows down a bit, there is always another song.
Junction 48, which has been popular around the world, winning the Best International Narrative Feature Award at the Tribeca Film Festival last month and the Panorama Audience Award at the Berlin International Film Festival, is bogged down at times by a very literal script. It reminded me, in ways both good and bad, of Eminem’s semibiographical movie 8 Mile, which celebrated the rapper’s life in traditional biopic style.
Director Udi Aloni, the son of late politician Shulamit Aloni, got many Israelis angry when he labeled Israel a “fascist” country as he accepted his award in Berlin.
However, in spite of his rhetoric in interviews, the movie is more nuanced than his public demeanor would suggest. It is an almost indescribable improvement over his previous feature film, the 2006 Forgiveness, in which actors not even born when World War II ended played Holocaust survivors who were mental patients in a hospital built on the remains of Deir Yassin.
Junction 48 focuses on Kareem (Tamer Nafar, who co-wrote the screenplay with Oren Moverman, a screenwriter best known for Love & Mercy and I’m Not There), a charismatic rapper whose much downloaded music and popularity on the Tel Aviv club circuit doesn’t translate into any money. He lives with his parents in Lod (he refers to the town by its Arabic name, Lyd), sharing a bedroom with his brother, who performs with him.
His parents are much more conventional musicians, who sing and play at the local Communist hall.
Kareem works in customer service for an Israeli company, speaking in fluent Hebrew, but the moment he leaves the office, he’s rapping, listening to music on his headphones as he dances and sings his way through his long trip home.
Kareem is in love with Manar (Samar Qupty), a gorgeous, sweet singer, but he doesn’t have enough money to marry her. He hangs out with his friends, who perform with him, some of whom have been drawn into the local drug trade. His parents, who want him to study at a local college and don’t see his rapping as a real musical career, tolerate everything but his friendship with low-level drug dealers. He plays gigs in Tel Aviv, where audiences love his music, not understanding its lyrics but responding to its beat.
Women there treat him as an intriguing novelty, but he is loyal to Manar. Right-wing Israeli rappers are friendly to him, but their casual racism demoralizes him.
After a sudden tragedy in his family, Kareem tries to concentrate on taking his music to the next level, but he gets bogged down in all kinds of ways, and the plot often loses focus. At times, it seems to be about police harassment against Kareem and his friends; the drug world of Lod (there are moments that seem like a Palestinian version of The Wire); Muslim extremists and their oppression of women (Manar’s uncles are against her performing and beg Kareem to intervene so they don’t have to hurt her); government neglect of Palestinian neighborhoods like the one where Kareem lives; and the laws that discriminate against Lod’s Palestinian residents, exemplified, with fitting but plausible irony, by the destruction of a friend’s home to make way for a museum of tolerance.
Just when one plot line seems to get going, it is dropped before it can be resolved. The movie does not shy away from showing divisions and problems within the Palestinian community but does not explore them in depth.
The charm of the young cast, especially Nafar and Qupty, is the film’s strength. When they perform, separately or together, the movie soars. The performance scenes are well filmed, and they are what audiences will remember most vividly.