Rapping for Peace?
Is it even possible for young Israeli and Arab hip-hop musicians to be friends in times of the Intifada? Israeli filmmaker Anat Halachmi has examined this question in her new documentary Channels of Rage, in which she introduces two rappers, Subliminal and Tamer. Petra Tabeling reports on an unusual musical experiment.
Anat Halachmi is tired. She just arrived in Amsterdam a few hours ago after a long flight from Tel Aviv. She presented her film Channels of Rage to a European audience for the first time at the International Documentary Film Festival last December. But maybe the young Israeli is also tired from the three years she spent shooting the film.
Channels of Rage tells the story of Subliminal and Tamer, two 24-year-old musicians in Israel. They live only a few kilometers apart and yet there is so much separating them: their faiths, politics, their backgrounds. Subliminal comes from a Zionist, Jewish family, Tamer is an Arab-Israeli from Lod.
But they have something in common: their rap music. Rhythmic spoken songs that express the feelings of vitality of a younger generation worldwide, thereby bringing many young people together. With Tamer and Subliminal this common ground is facing many tests.
Four years ago, Israeli Anat Halachmi first heard about Tamer through a newspaper article. "I was very surprised since I had never heard of any Arab rappers before, and I myself am a fan of rap and hip-hop."
A short time later the filmmaker visited Tamer Nafer in the Arab section of the Israeli city of Lod. Tamer, also known in the rap scene as "T.N.," lives in one of the run-down apartment houses.
Together with his friends, he lets out his frustration with the living conditions of Arab residents in Israel through his songs. But Tamer expressed admiration for Subliminal, a rapper who is also a Zionist and who sings his messages in Hebrew. "I knew right then I had found two protagonists for a film," said Anat Halachmi.
And that marks the beginning of her film, with Subliminal and Tamer together on a band bus. In a lively atmosphere they sing together into Halachmi's camera, laughing and having fun together. A short time later Tamer and his friends attended a concert by Subliminal in an Israeli nightclub in Tel Aviv.
He was one of few Arab guests, but Subliminal and Tamer wanted to sing the song "Living from day to day" that evening, to show the audience that Israelis and Arabs want the violence to stop. As the lyrics say: "Already a thousand in the field, carry words like weapons, one more page to the paper, when will the struggle end? I have no other land. People, war is outside, only hip-hop will bring peace."
Facing acid tests
But peace is very fragile. The second Intifada started in autumn 2000. The country has been severely shaken by demonstrations of force and attacks - fuel to the fire for political extremists and bringing a temporary halt to all peace efforts. The events also threw a shadow on the relationship between Subliminal and Tamer. Their friendship broke up in the wake of the Intifada.
Halachmi also documented the initial antipathy and accusations that the two protagonists flung at each other. The film shows enthusiastic fans at a concert of Subliminal, for instance, who shout out "death to the Arabs!" during the music. Although Subliminal, who is himself considered an extreme Zionist, does not want to support such slogans, Tamer heard about the concert from his home in the Arab section. He charges that Subliminal's music stirs up hatred toward Arabs.
Tamer, too, became more radical, giving interviews in which he expressed understanding for suicide attackers and didn't shy away from comparing the Israeli army with the crimes of the Nazis. Anat Halachmi accompanied both rappers independent of one another, sketching their everyday lives in times of conflict.
The two rarely meet, due to growing rift between Jewish and Arab Israelis. And the camera shows two young musicians who despite the circumstances still have respect for each other yet can no longer find common ground. Emotions and fears fan the flames of distrust and seem to have gotten hold of Tamer and Subliminal.
Like a Greek tragedy
Halachmi's film draws attention to limits. She balances between political and sociocultural barriers, hopes, and longings. The continuation of the film, which the filmmaker shot herself with a video camera, was not always easy - it took three years, with many highs and lows and uncertainties about what will become of the friendship between Tamer and Subliminal and thus what will become of her film.
But Halachmi continues to document the ups and downs. "I love complex films. It is a love-hate relationship, like a Greek tragedy. But they remain very connected to each other," said Halachmi, and her audience in Israel thanked her for that. For the difficult experiment of sensitively documenting a friendship at the margins of political events and terror, she was awarded the Wolgin Award for the best documentary film at the 2003 Jerusalem Film Festival.
Halachmi does not tire of pursuing the experiment further, even if she has to give it a little "push" herself. She hopes to bring the two actors Subliminal and Tamer back together, perhaps at the next award ceremony or the next presentation of the film. If that works, the young Israeli says, then it will have been partly thanks to her film and its international audiences.
"The central issue in the film is whether or not music can offer a solution. I think the question has been far from answered. I close the film with a song of Subliminal called 'Hope.' It is a song that everyone in Israel knows. I chose it deliberately because it also sends a message," said Halachmi.
"Ultimately, everyone wants peace, whether Israeli or Palestinian, Arab or Jew, including Tamer and Subliminal. They want a future in which their children and families can live not in fear, but in a more secure situation than is possible now. We have to work at it, but unfortunately we have only bad political leaders."
Petra Tabeling © Qantara.de 2004
Translation from German: Allison Brown
Channels of Rage, documentary film (Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles). Dir. Anat Halachmi, Israel 2003, length: 72 min.