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Tribeca Fest: 'Junction 48' wrestles with race and violence amid Middle East rap scene

Tribeca Fest: 'Junction 48' wrestles with race and violence amid Middle East rap scene
Tamer Nafar in "Juncton 48," anarrative movie about Israeli Arabs that made its U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. (Tribeca Film Festival)

Movies about life in Israel and the Palestinian territories have often been centered in places of extremes — the ultra-Orthodox area of Jerusalem that is the setting for "Ushpizin," or the cauldron of the West Bank that was the locale of "Paradise Now."

Can a director pull off a movie set in the more squishy spaces in between? That's one of the challenges undertaken by Udi Aloni, the veteran Israeli director who tackles the subject of Israeli Arabs in "Junction 48," his new narrative movie that made its U.S. premiere last weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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Aloni, 56, is known both for his leftist politics and for pricking audiences — past movies include 2006's "Forgiveness," about a Jewish mental hospital on the site of a massacre of Palestinians. (He's also the son of the late provocateur politician Shulamit Aloni). In his new work, he follows Israeli Arabs living in the airport-adjacent town of Lod.

(The movie counts the "Love & Mercy" screenwriter Oren Moverman among its writers and producers, and the U.S. film executive-turned-director James Schamus also has a producer credit.)

Not nearly as hard-up as places in the West Bank, Lod is also far from the comforts of more predominantly Jewish cities of Israel. As depicted here, residents grapple with hardscrabble economic conditions (a vast drug trade has sprung up); with harassment and far worse from the Israeli police; and with a general sense they are not welcome.

At the center of a group of affable young men is the Palestinian protest rapper Kareem, played by the real-life hip-hop star Tamer Nafar in what amounts to a version of himself. As Kareem and his bandmates begin to capture mainstream notice thanks to the help of a club in Tel Aviv, they would seem to find hope and a way out. But it's complicated by the racism of some of the Jewish Israelis who are part of the Tel Aviv rap scene, as well as the fundamentalism of some of their more religious Muslim neighbors, including the zealous family of Kareem's girlfriend, Manar (Samar Qupty).

The film won't be given extra points for political or ethnic nuance. It is notable, however, as a portrait of a place rarely captured even in deep-dive looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The goal, Aloni said, was to show the story from a Palestinian point of view and what he believes is the unambiguous nature of the debate.

"You have here a story that deals with many types of violence," the director said after the screening. "Of states versus citizens. Of one race against another. Men against women. This open ending is the reality we stand in now," he added. That this is a story set in an in-between place with ostensibly more freedom sharpens "Junction 48's" ideological point.

Aloni's movie, which won the audience prize at the Berlin Film Festival in February, does not have distribution in the U.S. He said it will be distributed in Israel with the help of an Arab-specific marketing campaign in the hope of attracting Palestinian audiences.

"Junction 48" is 15 years in the making, with Aloni frequently pushing Nafar to collaborate over the years. Whatever one's politics, one can relate to the music (the beats and rhymes are strong enough to make a viewer wish for more) — and to the difficulties faces by its crossover artist.

"I've been screaming on stage since '99," Nafar said at the screening. So when he was asked "to cry, to show emotion" as an actor, he found himself struggling.

"It's hard," he added, "for rappers to show emotion."

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