'Junction 48': Berlin Review

Courtesy of Amnon Zalait
A vibrant but simplistic snapshot of Israeli Arab life.

Young Palestinians use hip-hop to fight back against Israeli oppression in Berlinale veteran Udi Aloni's upbeat musical drama.

Setting the Israel-Palestine conflict to a hip-hop soundtrack, Junction 48 is a local story with global resonance. Returning to the Berlinale's Panorama section for the sixth time, Jewish-American director Udi Aloni comes backed by some famous filmmaker friends, with Oren Moverman (The Messenger, Love and Mercy) credited as co-writer and James Schamus (Brokeback Mountain, Indignation) listed among associate producers.

A multinational production supported by the Israel Film Fund, among others, Aloni's comic drama is big on feel-good vibes but light on emotional or political nuance. Given its ever-topical subject matter, Junction 48 should attract a curious niche audience and further festival play after Berlin. But its commercial prospects will most likely rest on the cult fame of its star and co-writer Tamer Nafer, the charismatic frontman of Palestinian protest-rap group DAM, rather than its own brittle cinematic merits.

Aloni is an artist and activist who has long campaigned for Palestinian rights and the establishment of a single bi-national state in Israel. He speaks of the current Israeli regime in terms of "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," so it is no surprise the Jewish characters in Junction 48 are mostly negative caricatures: casually racist police officers, violently nationalist rappers, remote authority figures bent on bulldozing Arab homes into rubble. By contrast, the Palestinian protagonists are all essentially peaceful, compassionate and tolerant. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, these stereotypes need to work a lot harder before they can be considered one-dimensional.

Making a confident switch from music to acting, Nafar plays Kareem, a lightly disguised version of his real self. Kareem is an aspiring rapper growing up in Lod, a former Palestinian town that is now a racially mixed suburban community close to the Tel Aviv airport. The plot centers on Kareem's growing musical fame, his everyday struggles with both Israeli oppression and parental disapproval and his implausibly chaste romance with the beautiful Manar (Samar Qupty). Subplots involve conflicts with local drug barons and angry demonstrations against the forced demolition of a friend's house, ironically to clear the ground for a Museum of Coexistence.

Junction 48 is a sweet, polished, deceptively sunny portrait of Palestinian life in contemporary Israel. The attractive young cast and bright color palette make it easy on the eye. Unsurprisingly, the musical elements are also strong, with exquisitely sensual Arab folk songs woven around Nafar's witty rapid-fire raps in Arabic, Hebrew and English. But Aloni's episodic drama also feels sanitized to the point of glibness, with too many schematic characters in place of any thought-provoking political complexity. And while the fuzzy take-home message of peaceful coexistence is something most viewers can get behind, it is also too simplistic and banal to sustain an entire movie.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama).
Production companies: Metro Communications, X-Filme Creative Pool, Blackbird, Dig The Movie
Cast: Tamer Nafar, Samar Qupty, Salwa Nakkara, Ayed Fadel, Sameh Zakout
Director: Udi Aloni
Screenwriters: Oren Moverman, Tamer Nafar
Cinematographer: Amnon Zalait
Editors: Isaac Sehayek, Jay Rabinowitz
Music: Itamar Ziegler, Tamer Nafar
Producers: David Silber, Stefan Arndt, Lawrence Inglee, Udi Aloni
Associate producers: Moshe Edery, Leon Edery, Gideon Tadmor, Eyal Rimmon, Michael Mailis, Susan Wrubel, James Schamus, Oren Moverman
Sales company: The Match Factory

Not rated, 97 minutes