An invigorating visit to the Palestine Underground

April 12, 2019
The godfather of hip hop in Ramallah, Muqta'a (right) performs for a crowd.

Palestine Underground 

Directed by Jessica Kelly

The documentary Palestine Underground follows a group of artists who are challenging divisions between Palestinians living in the West Bank and those in Israel through the dance floor.

Hip hop, techno, trap and traditional music nurture new and known cultural impulses among Palestinians on either side of Israel’s West Bank wall, ushering in a new era of resistance.

“We are the third generation of The Catastrophe [as Palestinians call the ethnic cleansing that came with Israel’s founding in 1948] and we don’t want to victimise ourselves anymore,” states Haifa DJ and Jazar Crew member Ayed. “We are bored actually from that.”

Boiler Room, a music broadcasting platform, commissioned the documentary after discovering an underground network of DJs and producers working between Ramallah, Jaffa and Haifa, quietly battling apartheid and occupation through club events. The final cut is an intimate portrait of key artists and collectives, building up to Boiler Room’s first livestream in Ramallah.

Underground begins at Israel’s apartheid wall in the occupied West Bank. Ramallah DJ and producer ODDZ ascends the eight-metre-high barrier with a makeshift wooden ladder and ropes down from one side of occupied Palestine onto the other. A body camera captures the moment, which is spliced with thumping scenes from the DJ’s forthcoming set.

He takes this route to play at a venue in Jaffa on the side of the wall generally forbidden to Palestinians holding West Bank IDs.

An eclectic mix of club shots bombards the screen like a perfect party promo before moving to images of everyday life for Palestinians in Israel subjected to discriminatory laws since 1948. The contrast is quickly established and frenetic techno beats fade.

During the film, Israel is simultaneously referred to as “occupied Palestine” and “’48,” terms widely used by Palestinians.

“It was very important for us that the name flipped,” DJ and producer Makimakkuk told The Electronic Intifada. “It was great to recognize the local name that we’ve been calling it for the past 70 years. If there is a West Bank and a Gaza, then there is a ‘48. Otherwise it’s all Palestine.”

A brief account of Israel’s land grab from 1948 up until the present day, population statistics and territorial definitions are illustrated to full effect while closeups, hedonistic dance floor shots and bold graphics give the production a fresh, contemporary feel.

That said, the map of Israel includes the Golan Heights — Syrian land occupied during the 1967 Six Day War and effectively annexed by Israel in 1981 — as part of its territory. This error is repeated later in subsequent maps.

The lofty, sun-filled shots of Haifa’s Jazar Crew differ greatly from the dark, smoke-filled studio in Ramallah where collectives BLTNM and Saleb Wahad gather, seemingly reflecting the difference in relative artistic freedom felt on both sides.

Getting booked outside of the West Bank has proven impossible for Ramallah DJ and MC Muqata’a. “I’ve been trying to perform in Haifa for four years,” he explains. “The Jazar Crew have invited me but it hasn’t worked out because I haven’t got the permission [from Israel] to go there, even though I’m originally from there.”

Haifa, though just a couple of hours by car up the road, seems much more distant due to the Israeli checkpoints.

“They [the Jazar Crew] live a different life from what we do,” says Ramallah-based Makimakkuk. “Having them around us made us understand even more what is going on.”

It’s a sobering moment, bringing into sharp focus the geographic isolation of Palestinian communities enforced by the Israeli government.

Ayed, a Palestinian with an Israeli passport, notes the ease with which he can move between territories. “We are privileged and we can use it for a positive thing,” he states. “We can travel to Ramallah and break with this border.”

A camera follows the Jazar Crew from Haifa into the West Bank ahead of the Boiler Room party. Once in, “It’s like a familiar place but not familiar at all,” says crew member Hilal. “I still feel as a stranger although I feel at home somehow.” Claustrophobic shots from the car seem to mirror the mood.

The final party is a sweat-filled, soulful scene accompanied by bass-laden tracks and comments from the artists. “The thing is, not a lot of visitors come to Palestine,” says techno DJ Sama’. A poster reading “Visit Palestine” flashes on screen. “Everybody feels that it’s a warzone.” Underground proves the opposite.

Certain themes, though visually present, are never directly addressed. A couple kiss on the dance floor, a man in a leather body harness flirts with the camera, a DJ sports a T-shirt reading “Anti-whitewashing and Pinkwashing Club”.

All suggest other sexual and political currents at play, left to be deduced by the viewer.

Apart from a few territory-related errors, Underground has one primary weakness. Though it covers much factual and musical ground, employing good use of archival footage and group interviews, it fails to highlight the political unrest at the time of filming, namely the Gaza boundary protests that have left about 24,000 Palestinians injured and more than 180 dead.

Boycott, divestment and sanctions is also absent — strange, considering the movement’s growing support and sympathetic coverage in the international electronic music scene. The inclusion of these events could have added real weight to the final cut.

That said, the message is clear: Palestine is on the map and worth the visit. Underground proves a valuable resource for music enthusiasts unfamiliar with the struggle, bringing renewed attention to the conversation and countering narratives that continue to deny the history and culture of an embattled people.

“We are not just DJs or just partymakers,” says Rojeh from the Jazar Crew. “We are fighting every day, trying to keep our culture strong.”

[Reprinted from The Electronic Intifada. Watch Palestine Underground at Riri Hylton is a freelance journalist and editor.]

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