“I’m not political,” goes the refrain. Over and over, the main character, Kareem raps these words as if to convince himself as much as his audience.
In a song loaded with political statements, he knows it’s a hard sell but it’s this same paradox that makes Tamer Nafar’s performance in Junction 48 so compelling. The role fits him like a glove; as well it might in a film inspired by his own true-life story, and it’s the lead actor himself who provides the powerful soundtrack, together with his band Dam, pioneers of the Palestinian hip-hop scene. Both Tamer and his character, Kareem, grew up in Lod, a crime-ridden city in Israel. The only thing either of them wants is to write love songs, but there’s no escaping the fact: in a neighbourhood where Arabs and Jews live side by side, love and politics go hand in hand.
The love that develops here is between Kareem and Manar (Samar Qupty), and the politics that interfere with it arise early on in a Jewish club, where Kareem’s band has a gig. Onstage is a thuggish group of Israeli rappers whose lyrics are as subtle as the West Bank barrier: “When the lion of Israel roars, everyone is fearful.” Kareem is too caught up in the atmosphere to let it bother him, but Manar is too disgusted to stay. At the after show party, Kareem shares a hot tub with his racist rivals, and as the steam rises so do the tensions. It’s only a matter of time before the thin veneer of ‘brohood’ cracks.
The sense of intimidation is ever present. While dealing with the death of his father and the paralysis of his mother following a car accident, Kareem and his friends are constantly harassed by the police. They take it in their stride like the nightly gun violence, which has become little more than a guessing game: was that the sound of a 9mm or a 22 caliber? It’s all just a normal part of the fabric.
When rubber bullets are used against them, however, things get more serious. In a scene that encapsulates the personal and political themes of the film, band member, Talal’s father is evicted from his home. Having fled to Jordan as a boy to escape a murderous Israeli occupation, he secretly returned to look after the pigeons. Sixty years later, an Israeli bulldozer is tearing down this Palestinian’s home to make way for a Museum of Co-existence. The absurd irony of it is made almost unbearable when he also loses his son to a drug dealer’s hit man just after watching the band play an impromptu concert on the ruins.
All futures appear to hang by a thread. Manar’s conservative family doesn’t want her singing in the band. They don’t want to have to hurt her and Kareem doesn’t want her to be hurt. But the decision is ultimately hers and as she sings, in front of a framed photograph of Vladimir Lenin, about a better life free from the politics of oppression, the distance between the ideal and the reality is quietly drawn.
Junction 48 is essentially a musical love story set in a troubled land. While Nafar would rather be writing pure love songs, it’s the mixture of love and politics in his music that make the triumphs and tragedies of this film so moving.
Verdict: 4 stars
Written at the Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) – February 14th 2016