Vilified at home, Israeli director wins at Berlinale

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Israel’s culture and sport minister has already spoken out against the director Udi Aloni’s audience award at the Berlinale. Featuring a mostly Palestinian cast, “Junction 48” uses hip-hop to fight social repression.

The award-winning “Junction 48” really ought to have pleased Israel’s Culture and Sport Ministry, which had helped co-fund the film. Vocal support for “Junction 48” might even have been seen as a positive public relations move after the ministry received international criticism for allegedly helping to restrict speech in Israel.

“Junction 48” took the Berlinale’s 2016 Panorama Audience Award for best fiction film, and director Udi Aloni and his cast were thrilled. “I am surrounded with love here in Berlin,” he told DW on Sunday, a day after receiving the award. “I’ve never experienced similar support in any of my previous screenings,” he added.

The film tells the story of two young Palestinian hip-hop artists from the city of Lod, a mixed Jewish-Arab suburb of Tel Aviv and one of Israel’s main centers of drug dealing. The protagonists use their music “to fight against both the external oppression of Israeli society and the internal repression of their own crime-ridden, conservative community,” according to the film’s official description. Aloni said his film “speaks in a special language, a coexisting one” and that hip-hop, “an easy and catchy way of communication,” had helped the “Junction 48” deliver “universal messages on particular stories.”

The film’s main protagonist is played by the Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar, a Lod native who co-wrote the script. Samar Qupty stars opposite Nafar as an ambitious singer. The actress told the news agency Reuters that the casting of mostly Palestinian actors aims “to present what the real new generation is trying to do, without making the reality looking any better or any worse.”

Not everyone was happy about Aloni’s honor, however: An Israeli TV channel broadcast a video recorded by one of its reporters at the Berlinale, in which Aloni can be heard saying in a Q&A session that “Merkel keeps on sending [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] submarines, for him to continue his policy” and calling Israel “fascist.”

And since Saturday’s announcement, chaos has consumed Aloni’s personal Facebook account, with free speech advocates battling those who call the director a “traitor” and a “filthy creature.”

Many Israelis are furious that Aloni had dared to criticize the same government that helped finance the film. He said such comments sounded “as if they are taken from another century.”

In a statement, Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev insisted on “separating the freedom of expression from the freedom of funding,” adding that she believes “the state has full liberty to decide what to finance and what not.”

“Artists who undermine the state, slander it and hurt its legitimacy should not be funded by its taxpayers,” Regev said in the statement, referring to Aloni’s caught-on-tape moment at the Q&A.

Aloni responded that “if you hear something similar to what the minister of culture said – that she only funds art that is supportive of Israel – if people would hear something like this here in Germany, they would freak out.”

‘Fear, horror, paranoia’

The director – the son of former Israeli Education Minister Shulamit Aloni, the founder of the dovish Meretz party – now splits his life among Tel Aviv, Berlin and New York, but wherever he is has remained a strong opponent of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

For Aloni, “Junction 48” is about love, coexistence, acceptance and, most importantly, possibility – “which is exactly the opposite of what Netanyahu is trying to present: fear, horror, paranoia.”

Aloni described “Junction 48” as optimistic and fun and said he believed that it would receive lots of support once released in Israel.

“We had an option to tell the story of the young generation of Palestinians in Israel,” he said. “Everybody elsewhere thinks that Palestinians exist only in the West Bank or in Gaza, and only under the occupation, completely separated from Jews. But – instead of a false message of separation – we wanted to show real life, through real characters, not just cliches.”

Is criticism permissable?

Reactions to the award in Israeli media were mixed. In an opinion piece, one writer argued that Aloni had criticized the government, but not the state of Israel, which made the director’s perceived “sin” excusable.

Online commenters wrote that criticism of the state of Israel, too, is perfectly legitimate.

“The media in Israel is practically embedded with the government,” Aloni said, for his part. “When you think about the fact that an Israeli reporter came to the Berlinale and collected material for the minister as if he was a Stasi member – well, that’s quite embarrassing.”

When asked about his statement that Merkel should stop sending submarines to Israel, Aloni responded: “I still keep on arguing that Europe should invest money in peace and not in war. Whether you agree with me or not, since when is it sensationalist to say such a thing?”

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