Chaos of Israeli-Arab Existence Erupts on Rap Stage in Cross-genre Film

‘Junction 48’ owes much of its power to the fact that it is unstable at the core and moves aggressively around an absent-present center.

Junction 48 Directed by Udi Aloni; written by Tamer Nafar, Oren Moverman; with Tamer Nafar, Samar Qupty, Salwa Nakkara, Tarik Kopty, Sameh “Saz” Zakout, Michael Moshonov

“Junction 48,” the second long feature by director Udi Aloni – his first was the 2006 “Forgiveness” – goes off in every possible direction. It would be easy to criticize the film for this quality, to point out its structural flaws and the odd ways in which some characters are depicted, and others appear or leave; but doing so would be a mistake. “Junction 48” owes much of its power to the fact that it is unstable at the core and moves aggressively around that absent-present center. After all, is there a steady, centered way to represent contemporary Israeli reality, in which Israelis and Palestinians meet and part, collide and interact, while Israeli society and culture have a similar relationship with their own margins, drawing away from them and back toward them again, colliding and merging with them?

Movies that have tried to give that reality a steady image may have themselves been made in a steadier, more well-reasoned way, but they have often seemed to me too simple, even a bit insincere. While watching “Junction 48” I found myself thinking back to Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti’s 2009 “Ajami,” not only because it also told the story of Israeli Palestinian society, but because it, too, managed to capture the chaos of local existence. “Ajami” was a better film than “Junction 48,” attesting to a more controlled and capacious filmmaking ability, but the two occupy the same spot, where Israeli reality faces imminent collapse. While Shani and Copti’s film explored this spot with extreme, rattling aggression, Aloni’s movie, while also severe, allows itself occasionally to be lighter and even ironic, an attitude it directs at every part of the society it depicts.

If “Junction 48” feels chaotic, that is in part because it violates accepted boundaries between genres, combining romantic and social melodrama with a musical picture. All of its genre components, however, have in common an element of protest. Set in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Lod, the movie tells the story of several friends, prominent among them a rapper named Kareem (rapper Tamer Nafar, who has a modest yet impressive screen presence; the scenes in which he shows off his art and its sharp, witty words are the high points of the movie).

A disconnected space

With the capable aid of cinematographer Amnon Zlayet, the neighborhood is portrayed as a disconnected space, a discrete unit at once absent and present, like its Palestinian inhabitants. The city of Lod is rarely seen, unless the characters find themselves forced to venture out for some reason.

A scene from 'Junction 48.'
Amnon Zlayet

The only other substantial setting is a rap club on the outskirts of Tel Aviv where Kareem and his friends are invited to perform. The Jewish Israeli artists who appear there – and bring to mind some familiar figures from our current reality – present an aggressively nationalistic position in their songs. (At one peak moment, a singer nicknamed “67 Carat” does a rap version of “Am Israel Chai,” stirring up an audience that includes some thugs who react violently to the presence of Palestinian rappers.)

The two main locations of Aloni’s movie, the neighborhood and the club, are linked both by the plot and by the themes of the movie. Into this rather open-ended narrative structure Aloni weaves several subplots. One is Kareem’s love for Manar (Samar Qupty), a singer in his band. Her brothers object; they consider her singing a violation of the family’s honor. Other subplots include the story of Kareem’s mother (Salwa Nakkara), who after her husband’s death abandons her old communist beliefs and adopts mystical ones instead; and an account of the control wielded by local drug dealers over the neighborhood youth. There is also the story of Kareem’s friend Talal, whose elderly father, a goatherd (Tarik Kopty), faces eviction from his home – where he returned after being expelled in the 1948 war – because the state wants to tear it down and build a museum of Jewish-Arab coexistence in its place.

This is heavy-handed irony, to say the least, but it does not damage the result. “Junction 48” may be a romantic and social melodrama that uses the familiar musical-picture formula of a young artist looking for his breakthrough, but at heart it is also a manifesto that shows Kareem’s dream as besieged on both the Palestinian and the Israeli side. Being a manifesto, the movie is allowed to avoid subtlety and make such blunt statements.

The chaos shown in the movie and represented in its structure and style may be the result of the collaboration among three filmmakers: Aloni, who seems to be deliberately flouting the traditional rules of cinematic narrative; writer and star Tamer Nafar, whose art provides “Junction 48” with its only obvious framework; and Israeli-born Oren Moverman, who collaborated with Nafar on the screenplay. Moverman has been working successfully in Hollywood, and his writing credits include such distinctive films about music as Todd Haynes “I’m Not There” and Bill Pohlad’s “Love & Mercy.” His excellent debut feature as director, “The Messenger,” told the story of two U.S. Army officers charged with delivering the news to families whose sons have died in Iraq; it received two Oscar nominations, for Best Original Screenplay and for Woody Harrelson’s supporting performance.

It may be that Moverman occasionally tried to steer “Junction 48” toward a more mainstream path, an effort that pulled against Nafar’s art and Aloni’s tendency to go off in all directions. But if such a conflict indeed occurred, it only energizes the result. Anyone who thinks Aloni lacks discipline as a director should take another look at the exquisite final shot, which manages to convey a serious message through its subtlety and exposes the artistic essence that the movie has in part tried to conceal.

“Junction 48” demands that we allow ourselves to be swept into it. That might be said of any movie, but it is especially true with this film, whose structure and style seem to present obstacles to such an engagement. Those obstacles are worth overcoming; if you do, you get a chance to experience a work whose unique way of observing current Israeli reality is what gives it validity and relevance.