Earth’s most contested piece of real estate is 10,000 square miles, (By comparison, New York, America’s 27th largest state is 54,475) something easy to forget from our massive plot of land here in the U.S. given the conflated coverage we’re assaulted by every few months when the violence inevitably gets ratcheted up a few nauseating notches in Israel. Beyond the mind numbing images of missile ravaged buildings, the back and forth between conservative Jew for Jesus pundits preaching the right of self defense for all super powers, the mothers in burqas wailing on dilapidated streets feeling a pain so alien to us we can’t even begin to empathize, it is reminding us of this smallness that Jackie Reem Salloum’s “Slingshot Hip Hop” accomplishes. The documentary about the release Palestinian youth find in Hip Hop is a patient 4 year journey with her teenage to twenty something subjects around the cities and refugee camps they’re imprisoned by. A look at everyday life as a Palestinian which as it turns out is even more difficult and depressing than the familiar moments of severe horror.
The film opens with the trio known as Dam from Lyd, an Arab city inside Israel proper. We’re told early on that Arabs still living in Israel are known as ‘48 Arabs, referring to the year the territory now known as Israel officially became occupied by Jews and different than the ‘67 Arabs living in Gaza and the West Bank, territories liberated by Israel in the Six Days War of 1967. After the second intifada in 2000 Dam, (Da Arab MCs, “Eternity” in Arabic or “Blood” in Hebrew) went political and are considered the fathers of the Palestinian rap movement. Dam’s prominence on an increasingly larger scale (We see them meeting Chuck D, on an Israeli rap show and performing in Amsterdam) allows them positions of respect in the Palestinian community. They endorse peaceful protest and respect for women, seen in their embracing of a fiery FemC duo named Arapeyat who they perform with. Perhaps most importantly they are role models, motivating forces for Palestinians throughout Israel and beyond. We see their tangible influence on the group PR, Palestinian Rapperz, living in Khan Yunis, a city and refugee camp in Gaza.
Despite living in a free state, Arab cities in Israel are still subject to check points and bureaucracy preventing them from developing or expanding their area in any significant way. This life of limited mobility is practically diplomatic immunity compared to life in Gaza where we’re taken next. The streets, if you can call them that, in Gaza are littered with barefoot children and old women. Electricity and water are cut off regularly for days at a time, which happens at one point with the group in studio recording. Mohammad Al Farra, the soulful, charismatic leader of the group puts it mildly when he says “Life here is not beautiful.” Many members of the community have never left due to the severe restrictions placed on them by the Israeli government. In one scene Mohammad explains the five hour process that would be required for him to see friends in Gaza City 14 miles away, assuming he was able to get there at all. A young PR protégé takes us on a tour through his hood, the Nimsawi refugee camp and the film’s most disturbing image is a tenement building before and after its destruction. To see the quiet courtyard once littered with laundry lines and children reduced to rubble in a frame is beyond awful.
The story focusing on Abeer Alzinaty, now living in Baltimore and performing as Sabreena Da Witch, is the most effecting and revealing as to the issues within the Palestinian movement. Abeer is a talented and beautiful young woman who sings the hook on the DAM song “Born Here”. She is prevented from performing this anthem of resistance on the aforementioned Israeli rap television show by cousins who threaten her family, deeming a woman performing in public to be inappropriate. The threat is real as honor killings (women being murdered for what is felt to be improper conduct such as adultery. Abeer was a subject in a documentary on the topic called “Maria’s Grotto” in which she was profiled as an outspoken opponent of the practice) are still prevalent in Arab countries. The mini conflict smacks of the religious divisions and general infighting that have plagued and sabotaged the Palestinian effort from its conception.
One of the film’s better vignettes follows Mahmoud Shalabi, a solo MC from Akko and the most angry and outspoken subject on a bus ride through an unidentified Jewish area. Surrounded by armed guards on city busses, cops who openly admit to harassing him for being Arab and giant billboards simply proclaiming “We Will Win”, Shalabi explains the frustration that comes with everyday profiling, but most interestingly he’s angriest with the Palestinians who often switch to speaking Hebrew in mixed company to avoid issues. Language is an issue persisting throughout the film. Abeer is famous for successfully suing McDonalds after she was fired for using Arabic. It’s a glance at the culture war being fought inside the battle, Mahmoud claims the harassment is an attempt to erase the language and in effect the people from the country and he may have a point. When Dam visits an Elementary school class early in the film, founding member Tamer Nafar stresses the importance of the children educating themselves in regards to their heritage and history because they aren’t getting it from their text books focusing on Israeli history and the foundations of Zionism.
I’ll allow that much of it may be lost in translation but from a decontextualized critical perspective much of the actual rap featured in the film is the stuff of middle school poetry over tinny beats. (Though in the very Slug way that occurs when writing in this flowery, didactic manner it’s capable of delivering some truly powerful images and insights. And conveniently they list Atmosphere as an influence) In the case of Dam above the other groups profiled they seem fairly technically proficient with breath control and their Arabic wordplay flows nicely, but again the cultural divide renders these value judgments nearly obsolete I just thought it’d be worth mentioning for those coming in looking for life changing art. Another standout moment comes when we get to observe Dam and Abeer watching PR’s first live performance on a handheld camcorder. They have communication throughout the film and Dam, as a group of Israeli Arabs under the impression that they’re seen as cowards or collaborators for not being amongst their truly oppressed brothers in the territories, share a deep mutual appreciation with the unheralded upstarts. At one point while watching the performance Nafer states shock that they even have studios in Gaza and by this point in the film you understand their amazement. It would be unfair to expect mastery of language or production and in spite of this songs like We7’s “Voice of Silence” are quite good. I may be an apologist in this feeling but I almost get the sense the Palestinian MCs can’t afford to be sly or ironic. They have a sense of purpose and a burning need to get out their message and they’ll leave it to future intellectuals to subject their work to resistant readings and inject layers of meaning.
“Slingshot Hip Hop” unfortunately left me wanting as a viewer. It succeeds in capturing everyday life for several charismatic young people, and while this makes the overall portrait of Palestinian experience in its many forms fuller, it is also the film’s greatest failing. Jackie Reem Salloum has found fertile ground in her topic and subjects and knows it but can’t settle on any one issue for any given amount of time. The documentary seemingly floats by with little to no shape, scope or direction beyond general frustration and too much goes unexplained. A persisting drug problem in the community is referenced often but never addressed, the climax of the film comes with PR’s denial of entry into the West Bank for a show with DAM despite having all the necessary documents but this entire event happens off camera and the documentary abruptly ends without explanation. This is one of the very few instances in which a film might’ve been better served with an extra hour. (and given all that has occurred since they stopped filming in 2006 now almost a necessity.)
For a detail head such as myself, it’s the out-in-the-open everyday police profiling of Arabic speakers in the street, little kids running at the crack of gunshots, a teenager facing a ten year sentence for a two year old charge of rock throwing and rappers tagging barrier walls that makes this film worthwhile. It brings something to the table beyond the boiling blood and heated rhetoric that infects any and all sweeping conversations on the subject of the world’s oldest turf war. The artists perform shows in front of middle aged crowds sprinkled with kids wearing bootleg New York Rangers and Orlando Magic jerseys. My favorite aspect of the movie is how the whole scene finds voice and style in baggy jeans and sideways hats in a form of expression birthed in the bombed out South Bronx decades ago that’s proven so universally appealing as a medium to the oppressed around the world, it’s enough to bring tears to your eyes.
But in general the feel permeating this film, in spite of everything is hope. The Palestinian Hip Hop scene represents a small corner of the resistance effort. Since the filming of “Slingshot Hip Hop” Hamas has become the face of Gaza, resulting in inexcusable human rights violations on the part of the Israelis as punishment for expecting the people to continue to suffer at the hands of Arafat’s corrupt, ineffective Fatah party. As if prolonged punishment of this sort wasn’t bad enough Israel has also continued to build settlements on the West Bank and engaged in an all out war in which they bombed their defenseless foes unapologetically for months on a global stage. But for me, even if they serve as little more then a foot note, the stories of DAM, PR and Abeer are a sign of progress. A step in the right direction in this most unique of conflicts in which the oppressors come to the table claiming oppression of their own and have global popular backing if not intellectual consent. It is my belief that if the Palestinian community uses these youths as an example, someday their struggle for that small sacred piece of land will end. The direction these kids have chosen is peaceful, defiant solidarity.