Slingshot Hip Hop (documentary; Arabic)

When you hear that “Slingshot Hip Hop” is a documentary about Palestinian rap groups, you probably have the same thought I had: What, that old subject again? Why can’t filmmakers come up with something original?

Just kidding. One of the joys of a film festival is seeing documentaries on unusual topics that you had never considered before, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who didn’t know Palestine had even one rap group, let alone a major hip hop movement. First-time feature filmmaker Jackie Reem Salloum (an American with Palestinian and Syrian roots) knows that our curiosity will be piqued simply by hearing the subject matter; I’m afraid she coasts a little too far on that, actually. The movie’s lack of focus suggests she was hoping the mere novelty of it all would carry it for 85 minutes.

It does carry it for a while, though. When Public Enemy rapped about a “fear of a black planet,” they probably had no idea they would one day be a source of inspiration to Arab kids living in Israel and the West Bank who saw their own struggle against the oppressive Israeli government as paralleling that of the urban black kids against American racism. DAM, the first Palestinian rap group (they started in 1999), believed that just as Americans had a “fear of a black planet,” Israelis have a “fear of an Arab nation.”

It’s that bad blood between the groups that has led to centuries of untold misery and suffering on both sides, but DAM’s three members – two brothers and a friend, all now in their mid-20s — wanted to find a positive outlet for their feelings. They work with children in their community, the Israeli city of Lyd, and are bona fide heroes among the younger generation. They emulate the American style of “gangsta” rap, but actual violence is not part of their agenda.

“Slingshot Hip Hop” is narrated by Suhell, whose older brother Tamer is DAM’s front man. After examining the roots of that group, we meet several of the groups they inspired, including PR (Palestinian Rapperz), whose members live in the prison-like Gaza, unable to leave to meet their fellow hip-hoppers in person. It’s when the focus is on those injustices and hardships that the film is at its most powerful. There’s a particularly sad vignette about kids living in a refugee camp who put on an illegal rap show and wind up in prison on trumped-up charges.

What the film lacks, though, is a cohesive theme or story line. An introduction to the Arab rap movement is all well and good, but it’s not enough – an introduction is only the first part of a story, after all. What should have been the emotional climax of the movie, when the Arab rap groups finally get through checkpoints and walls and bureaucracy and are able to meet each other, is tacked on over the closing credits like an afterthought. Salloum has some excellent rough material here; she just doesn’t make it flow the way her rappers do.

C+ (1 hr., 25 min.; Arabic with subtitles; Not Rated, probably R for several F-bombs.)