Archive for Movies

‘Hip Hop is what gives us hope for the future’: interview with Jackie Salloum, director of Slingshot Hip Hop

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 31, 2009 by Jack

Several weeks ago I stuck up a review of a truly original and exciting documentary, ‘Slingshot Hip Hop,’ which tells the story of the hip hop scene in Palestine. Against the backdrop of racial discrimination and occupation, Palestinian youth have since around 2000 built a vibrant cultural movement that expresses their frustrations and needs through the medium of rap in Arabic. Watching the film is inspirational, and reminds you of the very real social power hip hop as a movement has all across the world.

Jackie Salloum

This week I was very lucky to catch up with Jackie Salloum, the director of the film, following a screening at the Glasgow Film Theatre introduced by her and Suhell Nafar of DAM. Here’s what Jackie had to say about the film, the scene in Palestine, and what she’s working on next:

FCBF: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background as an artist, filmmaker and activist?

JS: I’m a 1st generation Arab-American, my Mom is Palestinian and my Dad is Syrian. When I was growing up we saw only negative images of Arabs in the media and popular culture. The message put across in the media is important, and when I was younger it had a negative impact on me-I didn’t want to be an Arab.

When I got older I became focussed on challenging stereotypes. I used pop culture references like bubblegum machines to put across a message. In 2002 I heard [DAM’s track] ‘Min Irhabi?’ [Who’s the terrorist?] on the radio and I flipped out, I was so excited. I went on the internet to find out more and discovered the arabrap site.

I made a video for the song, using images we never see in the US, of the intifada. It was very effective, and had a big impact on the people that saw it. People that previously had no interest or support for Palestine were moved, and when I asked them why they said, “Because it’s hip hop, it’s from the heart.”

My Professor suggested I should make a documentary. I thought it would be easy and take about a year! In fact it took 5! It was an amazing experience, and I learned so much I didn’t know about Palestine. My family are from the West Bank, I’d never been to Gaza.

FCBF: What difficulties did you encounter making the film?

JS: A lot of the problems were just more of a nuisance. I was typically held at the airport for 4-7 hours coming into Israel. You get passed from interrogator to interrogator, and you don’t know if you’ll be denied entry, which is something they do all the time to Palestinians from the diaspora. Once you’re in it’s not so bad, but you still have to get through checkpoints, and getting into Gaza is different, and more difficult.

In terms of the film, I wasn’t from a film background. Things were a bit unplanned, I just went in with a love for the subject. I didn’t wait until I got funding, I just went ahead and started. In some ways I think that was an advantage, but it meant I had to fund a lot of the film myself. I had to move back home and work in my parents’ ice cream parlour. That’s why I put Fresh Booza Productions at the end of the film; Booza is Arabic for ice cream, and it’s a tribute to them and their support.

I left cameras with some of the artists, and between us we collected 700 hours of footage, and so a lot of work went into editing.

FCBF: And what were the highlights of the process?

JS: Getting to know the artists; we became very close, like family. Before I met and saw them, visiting Palestine was quite a depressing experience for me. But seeing the hip hop scene in Palestine gives you hope, a small dose of hope for the future.

What was also great was meeting grassroots people who helped with the film, in the US and Canada as well as Palestine. Artists like Patriarch, The Narcicyst, The Philistines and Invincible came to help with the film, but have continued being involved and are a huge support to the artists in Palestine, for example by making beats. The Philistines made ‘Free the P,’ a compilation of hip hop and spoken word artists from around the world in support of Palestine, and all the proceeds helped fund the film.

I was lucky to work with Waleed Zaiter, who did all the graphics and animations in the film, as well as a lot of producing and editing. I was worried that if people didn’t know the background to Palestine, where Gaza and the West Bank were, they would be confused. But I also didn’t want to hit people with too many facts and statistics. The maps and graphics really help get the facts across.

FCBF: What differences are there between the hip hop scene in Palestine and other parts of the world? For example, there seems to be a lot more support from the older generation, and the position of women, both as artists and audience, seems to be much better than other places?

JS: The cross generational support is so nice to see, it’s one of my favourite things about the scene. They get into the lyrics, which lift their spirits. Because the lyrics talk about the occupation and the problems facing Palestinians, older people support it.

The groups get invited to so many different kinds of events. One event we see in the film is at an Eastern Orthodox Easter celebration!

My other favourite thing is the women’s involvement, and the way they are treated. Artists in Palestine don’t try to imitate what they hear coming from elsewhere, before they heard Tupac they weren’t into hip hop. There’s a completely different attitude towards women.

FCBF: It’s particularly interesting to see considering the main stereotype we are told in the west is that Arab societies are really oppressive to women.

JS: Right. I mean, there is oppression of women everywhere, but it takes different forms.

FCBF: Does the support for women’s involvement cause any problems within Palestinian society? We saw in the film how one female artist is threatened out of performing because relatives don’t think it’s appropriate.

JS: There’s absolutely no organised opposition to women’s involvement. Where there are problems it’s really internal to one particular family or local region. But other artists have very supportive families. Where there is opposition to hip hop, it’s on the grounds that it’s seen as something that’s ‘American’ and foreign.

FCBF: Something that’s really interesting in the film is seeing people use the internet and digital technologies to overcome the checkpoints and barriers of the occupation. What difference has the internet made for hip hop in Palestine, and how limited is it?

JS: It’s made a huge difference. It’s what made me aware of the scene, and when I went to shops asking for this music they kept giving me rai, which wasn’t what I was looking for! The only place you could find it was on the internet.

In Palestine, as you see in the film, people are separated by the occupation. People that may live only a short distance from each other are never able to meet because of the boundaries of the occupation. But they are able to connect online. It’s what made the scene possible. It’s not really smooth, but it is doable, and that’s what matters.

FCBF: Obviously the situation in Palestine forces artists to be political. But how far has hip hop crossed over from being a cultural movement to a political one? How much time do artists devote to politics vs. their music, or do they not see a distinction between the two?

JS: To be in Palestine, everything is political. What separates the good from the crap is talent, and the popular artists in Palestine are really, really good. The scene there is so huge, and is so saturated with political content that talent really makes the difference.

The music appeals to hip hop heads, as well as activists as a voice of the oppressed. It’s more attractive to many than classical Arab music because it’s in a form that people all over the world can recognise.

The film holds a special appeal in the Arab world, it’s won best film awards in film festivals in Syria, Egypt and Lebanon. In some ways that’s a more difficult audience because they already know the narrative of the Palestinian, it’s not new to them. They like it because they’re not allowed to go to Palestine, and so it’s the first time they see different aspects of daily life there, it’s the first time they see Palestinians happy. They love to see Palestinians smiling and happy instead of just images of suffering, and it lets them learn about daily life in Palestine.

FCBF: Is there an influence from traditional Palestinian music and poetry on Palestinian hip hop?

JS: Definitely. The lyrics reference poets like Mahmoud Darwish. And the artists are always aware of incorporating Arab musical influences, and use Arab instruments live on stage.

FCBF: From early on in the film I was impressed with the quality of the beats. What kind of beatmaking facilities do people have access to? Who’s doing the production?

JS: It’s different in different places. In Gaza for example there’s no access to beatmaking facilities, and the beats are downloaded off the internet. This made it difficult for us to find beats to put in the film, because many of those used by the artists were originally very well known ones. But after 6 years making music, DAM started making beats, and a lot of the ones used in the film are theirs. DAM produce for a lot of others as well, but now other groups like WEH and Arapeyat are producing beats for themselves as well.

FCBF: Is there a strong hip hop scene in all it’s different aspects? We saw a bit of graffiti, but what about DJs, breakers etc.?

JS: Graffiti is a really strong part of Arab culture, but it’s not necessarily hip hop graffiti, it’s political. People have been using graffiti in Palestine for a long time to express their political frustrations, and the artists are not necessarily hip hop.

There’s an increasing amount of breakers, especially in Gaza. As for DJing, in the occupied territories it’s mostly using CDs as people just don’t have access to records and record playing. In Israel itself there is access to that kind of stuff because it’s popular with Israelis as well, but the key issue is whether you can afford it.

FCBF: So you’re still in touch with people from the film, what’s been happening since it was made?

JS: Since the film hip hop in Palestine has just been expanding, there are more and more people performing. DAM are working on their second album. PR [Palestinian Rapperz] are separated by the occupation, but they’re continuing to use the internet to make music. Arapayat are still making music, and Mahmoud Shalabi is playing the kawala, a traditional Arab flute now, and incorporates it on stage with DAM.

FCBF: How can we in other countries help and support Palestinian hip hop and the Palestinian people?

JS: Support the artists, support oppressed people! I think that art and culture are more effective at opening many people’s eyes than purely political activism. So get the artists out to perform, and buy their music. If you’re part of any kind of institution that has funds to bring people over or to send people to Palestine then use them. Even recording one song is so expensive for these artists, and they’re still working and struggling financially. Just bear in mind no major music corporation is going to invest in Palestinian hip hop any time soon, so they depend on grassroots support.

FCBF: What are you working on next? I heard you’d like to make music videos for Arab artists?

JS: Suhell and I just now are writing a children’s film. I’m not going to make the mistake I made with ‘Slingshot’ and tell you all about it before it’s made. I would like to make more videos, and make them available through youtube. A lot of the artists now are making videos, like the Letters video by Suhell [see below]. Abeer is making a documentary as well, she’s making videos as well as music.

I don’t want to do another documentary for a while, I’d like to work on something a bit more structured with a script! I’m sure that will come with it’s own set of problems, but I look forward to finding those out.


Short doc on Sengalese hip hop

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on October 15, 2009 by Jack

Found a great site for streaming free documentaries, so expect a good few posts in coming days where I just embed some videos for you to watch.

This one is about hip hop in Sengal. It’s only 7 minutes long, so it’s not a big commit, but it does touch on some interesting issues, especially the role of Islam and how that changes how rappers present themselves and the content of their rhymes.

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Update on Slingshot Hip Hop

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on October 2, 2009 by Jack

A quick update to what I wrote below about the film ‘Slingshot Hip Hop,’: if like me you’re based in Glasgow it’s showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre on October 28th.

The showing will also feature an introduction from Jackie Salloum, the director, and Suhell Nafar of DAM. Sounds really worth making it along, perhaps I’ll see you there.

Below I’ve embedded another short film by Jackie Salloum. It’s an edited together selection of portrayals of Arabs in movies, called ‘Planet of the Arabs.’

Planet of the Arabs is a powerful 9 minute collage of racist stereotyping of Arabs in movies.Out of 1000 films that have Arab & Muslim characters (from the year 1896 to 2000) 12 were positive depictions, 52 were even handed and the rest of the 900 and so were negative. A montage of Hollywood’s relentless dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims.

‘Like a flame in the darkness of a cave,’: Hip Hop in Palestine

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on September 24, 2009 by Jack

Yesterday I finally got the chance to see a film I’ve been wanting to get my hands on for a long time, the documentary ‘Slingshot Hip Hop.’ The film documents the emergence and growth of a strong and impressive hip hop movement among the Palestinian communities, both living inside Israeli territory and in the occupied territories.

The fact that hip hop has taken root in Palestine is testament to its power as a voice for the oppressed. Few peoples in the world face the same level of violence and domination as the Palestinians, and the fact that in the midst of that Palestinian youth have turned to hip hop to express themselves and attempt to bring positive change to their situation gives me a lot of hope and pride for the future of hip hop, and what it could be capable of.

The movement in Palestine really began with a group called DAM (Da Arabian MCs). They formed in 1999, and, in a story that’s familiar from the beginning of many hip hop scenes all over the world. They originally rapped in English, with lyrics that imitated the mainstream US hip hop they’d heard.

What changed the situation for them was the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Ariel Sharon, leader at the time of Isreal’s right wing Likud party and a war criminal and mass murderer, visited the third most holy mosque in Islam, located in Jerusalem, in an act of deliberate provocation. This act crystallised the anger of thousands of Palestinians who had failed to see the improvements in their lives promised by the peace process. A huge uprising began, both in the occupied territories and by Palestinians living with in Israel itself.

The massively disproportionate and violent repression that followed at the hands of the Israeli military politicised and angered a whole generation that were to then turn towards hip hop as a means of resistance.

DAM come from Lyd, a town in Israeli territory, and so are part of the community known as ’48 Palestinians. Originally, pretty much all of the land now occupied by Israel was home to Palestinians. With the declaration of Israeli statehood in 1948, the Palestinians suffered what they call the Nakba, or disaster. Now, inside Israel, Palestinians are a minority who are constantly harassed and racially discriminated against.

DAM and the other rappers from ’48 talk about how they feared that Palestinians living directly under occupation would think them privileged. But in fact you get to see the discrimination they face on a daily basis. At one point Mahmoud Shalabi, another ’48 MC, is stopped in the street by a cop. When the filmmaker asks why, is it simply because he was speaking Arabic?, the cop aggressively replies “Yes!”

Following the outbreak of the intifada, DAM turned away from making pretty vacuous music in English, and towards engaging directly with their social and political situation in their own language, Arabic. Their song ‘Meen Erhabi,’ (“Who’s the terrorist?”) tackles a lot of the issues head on, and became a major source of inspiration to other MCs and artists throughout historic Palestine. Within a month of its release in 2001 over a million copies had been downloaded from the arabrap site. It has become a hit throughout the world, especially in France where there is another oppressed Arab minority, and the lyrics have been chanted on demonstrations. Musically, they fuse hip hop with Arabic percussion rhythms, song and poetry, and they clearly have a great love for Arab literature.

We see DAM doing more than just rapping about their politics as well, leading demonstrations against house demolitions by the Isreali military and going to a children’s camp to talk about Palestinian history and identity. As they tell an interviewer on Israeli TV, they believe they need to be in the streets, and politically active.

Watching it, I thought it was particularly interesting how, yet again, oppressed people around the world look to the US and the struggle of black people to what they themselves are going through. As one of the members of DAM, Tamer Nafar, puts it:

“Hip hop is a weapon, and depending where you come from it will have a different velocity. If you come from Beverley Hills, its like a water gun, ta ta ta. If youre from Compton its like BAM!”

DAM also take a progressive attitude towards other issues besides just the occupation, as we see from their support for female MCs and singers. Women have been prominent with in the Palestinian hip hop scene from early on, and some have faced sexist attitudes with in their own society as well as from the occupation. This has led to some being threatened from their own families attempting to intimidate them out of performing.

However, what comes across is that, both as performers and a participating audience, women are far more involved in Palestinian hip hop than many other scenes around the world.

Tamer Nafar was really on point again when he says:

“Today the Arabs face the most discrimination. Palestinians even more. Plus the difficulties in our own society. What could be tougher than that? And who gets it worst? A woman. An Arab woman. Doesn’t get tougher than that.”

The women featured in the film are really impressive vocally, and their music definitely shows the influence of more traditional Arab song. One artist in particular, Abeer, really had a story that blew me away. Abeer was sacked from McDonalds for speaking Arabic, and went on to successfully sue them for discrimination. In her home town of Lyd she helped found a youth club to try and give Palestinian youth somewhere to break the monotony and boredom in a town where there’s nothing to do and no support from the state. And as an artist she’s really talented. Since the film was made she’s emigrated to the USA, and is still recording. Here’s a video of her performing in Baltimore:

My personal favourites in the film though came from a place that recently has suffered the worst brunt of the occupation: Gaza.PR (Palestinian Rapperz) are brilliant. They had a really engaging flow even for a non-Arabic speaker, and when you see their lyrics in translation in the film they’re really powerful.

PR are from the Gaza Strip, and at the time of filming had never been allowed to leave by the Israeli authorities. For those that don’t know, Gaza is a strip of land surrounded by the Israeli wall, and filled with Israeli military bases and checkoints. In this gigantic open prison 1.5 million Palestinians are incarcerated and kept under siege. It’s extremely difficult to leave.

The Israeli wall

Mohammed from PR tells of how he decided to become an MC-during the second intifada he narrowly escaed death when he turned just in time, meaning an Israeli bullet hurt his arm rather than penetrating his heart. At the time he was listening to hip hop, and in his own words he “started to think about another way to resist.”

In the film, PR’s greatest dream is to be allowed to enter the other parts of Palestine and meet DAM and other members of the Palestinian scene.

Although they have never been able to meet in person, like so many other places in the world they embrace new technology to break through state barriers, staying in touch with other groups by phone and internet. The fact that in a place so besieged as Gaza digital technology can help break down walls and segregation is obviously very positive.

What ‘Slingshot Hip Hop’ brings home is that in many parts of the world, hip hop is the natural expression for opressed youth. The Palestinians in the film identify with the struggles of the oppressed in the US, and want to use their voices to try and bring about positive change to their situation.

Their successes in doing that are proof of the ongoing social power of hip hop as a movement, something that movements for progressive change in the US and UK have barely scratched the surface of.

Nigeria bans ‘District 9’

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 20, 2009 by Jack

Over at the Leftfield blog, where I also sometimes post, I recently put up a review of District 9.

The long and short of it was that I thought a great action/adventure/sci-fi movie (the only thing that really stands up to it to have come it this year genre-wise was the brilliant Moon) was seriously marred by some pretty heavy racism. The film is about a group of aliens whose ship gets stuck hovering over Johannesburg. The aliens then are forced to live in a segregated, disgusting slum, under the control of an archetypal evil corporation and their paramilitary mercenaries.

The real problems arise from the sub plot about Nigerian gangsters who have taken up residence to exploit the aliens. They are portrayed as thuggish and savage, which on some level you can excuse as a portrayal of gangsters. What crosses the line is that, in their desperation to gain control of alien technology, the Nigerians turn to “witch doctors” and eat the body parts of the aliens “to gain their power.” On top of this we’re told that they operate prostitution rings, with Nigerian women servicing the aliens sexually.

The portrayal of black people as cannibalistic, sexually voracious savages repeats all the worst stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood for over a century now. It’s also really disappointing because I was looking forward to the film not only as a blockbuster, but perhaps as well as an intelligent allegory about Apartheid and its aftermath in South Africa. However, the ability of the film to tackle these issues is pretty fatally undermined by its racist depiction of actual black people (as opposed to allegorical alien ones.)

Now its emerged that the Nigerian government is furious about the portrayal of Nigerians in the film. Information Minister Dora Akunyili has asked cinemas to stop showing the film and has demanded an apology from producers Sony Entertainment. The government are also unhappy that the gang’s leader’s name closely resembles that of former President of Nigeria Olesegun Obasanjo.

Former Nigerian President Olsegun Obasanjo not amused by his name being used for a savage gangster. And yes, I couldnt get a picture of the actual character in the film so I used him instead.

Former Nigerian President Olsegun Obasanjo not amused by his name being used for a savage gangster. And yes, I couldn't get a picture of the actual character in the film so I used him instead.

“We have directed that they should stop public screening of the film,” said the Minister. “We are not happy about it because it portrays Nigeria in bad light.”

“We have written to the producer and distributor of the film, Sony Entertainment, expressing our displeasure and demanded an apology. We have asked that the areas where Nigeria and Obasanjo are mentioned should be edited from the film.”

Personally, I still really enjoyed a good portion of the film, although I felt let down by its rehashing of typical movie racism. It’s good to see Nigeria standing up against it, although I think banning the film might be going a bit far. It is certainly fair that Nigerians should expect an apology, and there’s also a Facebook page now called ‘Nigerians offended by District 9.)

The Minister also said that the government is trying to get the indigenous Nigerian film industry (which some reckon is the third largest in the world after the US and India, and which I intend to post about later) to help portray the country in a better light.