Palestine Underground is a 25 minute documentary released by Boiler Room today. The film documents the flourishing underground music scene in Occupied Palestinian Territory, the West Bank. Shot last June, the film follows alternative Palestinian music collectives, including techno DJs, hip-hop producers and rappers, over a week in the lead up to Boiler Room’s first party in Ramallah.
The Palestinian artists are blossoming in their creativity despite enforced constraints from the Israeli government; and although their movements are restricted and there is a midnight curfew, the Palestinian music scene refuses to dwindle, as seen in the film’s interviewees, who are brimming with musical passion and freedom of expression.
Produced by Boiler Room’s Anaïs Brémond and directed by BBC and Channel 4 documentary filmmaker Jess Kelly, Palestine Underground “connects the dots between club culture and cinema to stretch the boundaries of what a film experience can be”, recording a musical subculture that is little known in the West. The director Jess tells It’s Nice That that “this was exactly the kind of project I was looking for.” The filmmaker and journalist explains: “I’d been doing a lot of current affairs documentaries and I was keen to make a film where I could have more artistic freedom and the scenes breathe.”
Jess is a freelance documentary maker who made a career in filmmaking after studying Arabic at university. “Documentaries are a good way of mixing the language with my interest in what’s going on in the Middle East as well as visual creativity”, says Jess. Having made numerous films in the Arab-speaking world, Palestine Underground continues the director’s legacy of “challenging the stereotypes that we have in the West about this part of the world.”
The film seamlessly represents differing depictions of the complex environment of the West Bank. The unlawful Israeli raids are intertwined with segments of the booming music scene to accurately convey the disturbing sociopolitical tones that the West Bank’s artists endure. Of the filming process, Jess explains, “I’ve filmed in the West Bank and Gaza so it wasn’t a big shock, but the reality of that separation wall and the heavy Israeli military prescience is not something you could ever get used to.” For Jess and the rest of the production crew, one of the most significant scenes that was essential to execute accurately, is the road trip scene with Jazr crew from Haifa to the West Bank. “As Palestinians with Israeli passports, they have the privilege of being able to travel freely from Israel into the West Bank, but people in the West Bank can’t do the reverse. To even leave the West Bank they have to apply to the Israeli authorities for a permit, and it’s often denied”, the director explains. “It was really important to me to capture their mood during that trip, which was a mix of excitement and anger or unease at the fact that they have to cross that separation wall to get to their friends. It makes them feel like outsiders.”
From our privileged, European positions in front of the TV, we are presented with a media angle that focuses on Palestine’s destroyed areas of Gaza. However Jess describes the West Bank as “incredibly beautiful and peaceful.” The discovery of the music scene immediately evoked the “tight knit community of people” that are a part of Ramallah’s music scene, “and as a Londoner, I really envy that”.
Members of the production team spent a year getting to know some of the artists online before going out to the West Bank as a lot of the musicians are rightfully suspicious of the Western media misrepresenting the complicated political situation. The level of trust between the film crew and the artists is evident, particularly in the opening scene where the DJ Oddz jumps the separation wall into Israel. The intimate footage throughout the film similarly interweaves between the devotion to music and the brutal political tensions demonstrated by the handheld camera footage of Oddz crossing the wall. While going over it, he says: “you can’t build a wall and say you can’t go and do this, it’s music, it’s a right for everyone”. For Jess, this quote and the physical action of crossing the wall “sums it up”. The artists risk their lives for their right to musical expression.
Although Palestinian musicians face multiple restrictions on a daily basis which “rile up” Jess and the rest of the production team; it induces inspiration for what these artists have achieved and their musical talents. Finally, when asked about the future for the communities in the West Bank, Jess adds: “sadly, I don’t think the future looks bright in terms of the political situation for people in the West Bank, especially now under the Trump administration. But there’s still a lot we can do as individuals. One of the best things we can do is visit the West Bank. It’s not a ‘danger zone’ like the Israeli authorities refer to, it’s a beautiful place to visit. There’s an incredible underground music scene to discover, too.”