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Arab rapper X Jewish Rapper: Mazzi & Sneakas

February 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Having just completed my last post about the Arab-Israeli film “Ajamai”,  I felt it only right to brave the (second) blizzard of aught-ten to go see Mazzi & Sneakas, your favorite rapper’s favorite Arab-Israeli rap duo, at the world-famous Nuyorican Poets Café. The pair were performing alongside their spoken word sisters, the veiled Palestinian poetess, Tahani Salah, and the ‘Jewish Mamita’, Vanessa Hidary, as part of the Tug of War Tour, a project they describe on Facebook as a “thought-provoking and multi-dimensional artistic endeavor that explores narratives of conflict and co-existence between Muslims and Jews”. After seeing the show last night, I am prepared to cosign that description. The rappers’ lyrics and the women’s words relayed stories that made me think, laugh, and then think some more about the state of co-existence between Muslims and Jews the world over. Indeed, it is laughably and tragically poor.

And yet, witnessing performances like this one keeps me stocked with confidence that my generation, the Hip Hop generation, has the power to change the narrative, nay, is already changing it. I saw this last week in “Ajami“, imagining the young co-directors, one Arab Christian, the other Israeli Jew, working together for 7 years to realize a vision of storytelling in the Middle East that noone had realized (or perhaps even had) before. And I saw it last night, as 4 New Yorkers, two male, two female, two Jews, two Muslims, took to the stage in a display of artistic solidarity that was neither corny nor cheesy, but completely genuine, proving that concepts like ‘collaboration’, ‘cooperation’ and ‘coexistence’ do not have to be cynical punchlines or pie-in-the-sky dreamings, but real goals that we can strive for in life as in art.

Here’s one highlight from Mazzi & Sneakas’ set, where the two pair off in a cultural rap battle that could only happen in Jew York Medina. As Sneakas puts it, “We’re all Jews, we’re all Arabs, we’re all the same, yada, yada, yada.”

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Doc X Narrative: “Ajami”

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

My first two tweets coming out of seeing “Ajami“, the Oscar-nominated Arab-Israeli film, praised its rare, “portrayal of Arab & Israeli male aggression AND vulnerability” as well as the decentered, interweaving narrative structure. The more I’ve thought about the film (and seen it again), the more I’ve come to appreciate the way that the 1st time directors, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, made such portrayals possible through their brave fusion of documentary and narrative forms. To begin with, they shot most of the film on location in the rough neighborhood of Ajami, in the city of Jaffa, after which the film is named. Those two decisions alone, location and title, ground the film in an environment that actually exists and call it by its name. This removes any doubt about where we are and how constructed the story is going to be. It’s as if the directors are saying, from the outset, “This is not a true story but it might as well be.”

With their world already set, Copti and Shani chose to cast mostly non-professional actors from the neighborhood of Ajami. This is a hugely ballsy move, especially for first-time directors, but it pays off in spades as the characters in the film consistently behave and speak in ways that are not at all ‘larger than life’ but rather completely life-like. The directors spent a year in workshops with the cast, placing them in dramatic situations and encouraging them to act exactly as they would in real life, using language that they would use in real life.  For the film itself, they often worked without a script or without telling the actors what was going to happen next, so as to elicit the most pure, gut reactions. That is exactly what they got and it makes for some of the most gripping emotional performances I’ve ever seen on the big screen.

Naturally, an authentic location and authentic neighborhood cast call for an authentic shooting style, which “Ajami” delivers through the lensing of Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov. The roving, handheld style places the viewer squarely in the middle of the action, never quite certain what’s coming next or from which direction. Mr. Yaacov is an excellent student of the cinema-verité school and takes it to another level, becoming almost an extension of the raw, unpredictable action of the characters.

But perhaps the most impressive (or, at least, notable) meta-narrative operating within “Ajami” is that of the film’s creators, Copti and Shani, whose own collaboration creates an aura of hope around an otherwise tragic tale. Copti, an Arab Christian who was raised in the Ajami neighborhood and followed in his father’s footsteps to become an engineer, discovered a passion for filmmaking when a friend asked him to collaborate on a short film about their neighborhood. He later met Shani, an Israeli Jew, who had attended film school in Tel Aviv and ran a student film festival, for which he encouraged local youths to make films about their environment. The two found in eachother a creative soul mate and embarked on writing the screenplay that would become “Ajami“. They worked on the project for four years, while holding down day jobs, and eventually cobbled together financing from German and French film finance companies, as well as a grant from the Israeli Film Fund, just enough to shoot for 3 weeks.

When the film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer, it brought down the house and was immediately hailed as the film of the year, which it won (as well as Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Editing) at the Israeli version of the Oscars, the Ophir Awards. It has since been nominated for Best Foreign Film for the upcoming Academy Awards.

I’ll resist the urge to wax political about the lessons that can be drawn from the success of this Arab-Israeli, Christian-Jewish, Euro-Israeli collaboration. Suffice it to say that such lessons are abundant, but not nearly as significant, perhaps, as the artistic triumph that was achieved by the brave co-directors. On second thought, “artistic triumph” is far too lofty a description of what they did. Instead, I’d like to qualify their triumph as one of truth and honesty in storytelling. Whether documentary or fiction, scripted or improvised, the boundaries of filmmaking in the Imagination Age are not only expanded by advancements in technology (read: “Avatar”) but, maybe more so, by the filmmakers themselves who are willing to forego the artifices of cinema and lay bare the raw humanity of everyday life on film. For me, this was the true power of “Ajami“, the willful blurring of that antiquated line between art and reality.

Watch the trailer and then go see the film.

Hip Hop Diplomacy x Language Learning: DAM

February 9, 2010 1 comment

In a conversation yesterday with my Imagination Age colleagues, Rita J. King and Josh Fouts, the question came up of how to use Hip Hop Diplomacy to promote language learning and I immediately thought of this amazing video from the Palestinian rap pioneers DAM, in which group leader Tamer Nafar spits a series of rhymes off of each letter in the Arabic alphabet.

It’s a remarkable video, stylistically and lyrically, and it deserves a moment of appreciation. First of all, it uses a research-proven method of language acquisition, linking words to images, the audio to the visual. Going a step further, Nafar carefully selects words (and the director matches images) that signify certain cultural and political themes, including Muslim-American icon Muhammad Ali, Hip Hop bling, images of Palestine, snapshots of fellow Arab Hip Hop stars, such as Canadian-Iraqi MC Narcicyst, Egyptian supergroup the Arabian Knightz, and Palestinian R&B singer Shadia Mansour, not to mention political figures such as the Ayatollah Khomeini and Hosni Mubarak. But the best part is the simplest, when a buzzing bee flies across the screen as the sound “zz-zz” is repeated, to illustrate the sound of the letter ز (‘z’ equivalent). I wish I’d seen this video when I was first learning Arabic. Not to mention the fact that it’s set to some of the best American rap instrumentals of the past 2 decades (by Kanye West, Swizz Beats, Just Blaze, et al), which is only increasing my intrinsic motivation to absorb the sounds, letters, and images I’m seeing. That, my non-linguists, is the golden ticket for language learning. If you’re motivated (eg. to earn money, to make friends, to pick up chicks, etc.) and if you’re immersed in meaningful content, you’re gonna absorb more and more quickly than by just reading from a book, all by your lonesome. If you don’t believe me, just ask Noam Chomsky. But I doubt if Tamer needed to read Chomsky or Howard Gardner (Theory of Multiple Intelligences) or Stephen Krashen (Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis) to create a video that would entertain, educate, and inspire a global audience to learn his native tongue. He just did what he does naturally: crafted clever rhymes over dope beats and then portrayed them in a next-level video, mixing text and image and self-reference, like what DA Pennebaker did with Bob Dylan for the “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, though I can’t be certain that this was an influence either.

Either way, it’s one of the most creative and innovative language learning videos I’ve seen in my language learning life. Props to Tamer and the boys from DAM! Teachas, all a y’all.

Gov 2.0 x Reality TV: Brick City

February 8, 2010 Leave a comment

If you haven’t already seen the new Sundance channel reality/doc series, “Brick City” (Sundays at 9PM EST), then you haven’t experienced one of the best examples of the use of new media to create better, more transparent governance, or what is now popularly referred to as ‘Gov 2.0’. President Obama, in his “Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government”, explains:

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

Over months of shooting and 5 hour-long episodes, Mayor Cory Booker of Newark (@CoryBooker on Twitter, another great example of Booker’s commitment to Gov 2.0) opens up his office, his city, and his own life to the Emmy-deserving cameras of Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin (“The Last Party”, “The Blues”). And not only Booker, the energetic, Ivy league-educated, community organizer (remind you of anyone?) 1st term mayor, who defeated longtime incumbent Sharpe James (see Oscar-nominated doc “Street Fight”), and has made it his mission to rebrand Newark as a city on the rise. But also the Police Director, who is fighting not only the gangs on the street but his political opponents within the Department; a former gang-member turned women’s activist, who is pregnant with her second child (by her boyfriend from the rival gang) and also facing multiple years in prison for an assault in 2004; the principal of one of the city’s underfunded public high-schools, who is trying to put pressure on the school board to make good on their promise of a new school building; even the governor, former Goldman Sachs CEO Jon Corzine, makes a few cameos. So, how does this all add up to a case study of effective use of Gov 2.0 strategies? Not to be a pain in the ass, but you’ll really have to watch to understand. The best I can do is explain that it’s all in the way each character uses the power of the camera to connect with the virtual community that has grown around the show, from its fans, watching live, streaming clips, commenting, tweeting, retweeting, and in other ways multiplying the impact of the show’s content and various change-agenda; the way those characters use the show as part of a multi-platform social media campaign to promote their individual causes. This allows Cory Booker to be tweeting about Newark’s “achievements” as they unfold on the screen and in the online forums and episode guides. It allows  ex-gangmember Jayda to promote her peer group, Nine Strong Women, and provide professional video content to its website. It allows Central Highschool Principal Ras Baraka to make an impassioned speech to his students about the abnormalcy of gang violence and have it reach audiences across the state and country, even the world (see below).

Please notice the posting by a Youtube member (unaffiliated with the school or the show) of Facebook and Twitter links for “OurBrickCity” and “CoryBooker”, as well as the positive comments from actual students and supporters of Principal Baraka. I would call that a very effective partnership between Education, Media, and Government, and the public to rally wide support behind a change-initiative. It’s transparent, it’s open, it’s participatory, it’s collaborative, and it aims to build trust between partners. In fact, the Producers Guild of America recently hosted a panel to discuss “Brick City” as a ‘New Media Marketing Case Study’.

But more than just the effectiveness of increasing visibility for the show and, ostensibly, support for the various causes that it champions, “Brick City” introduces a whole new way to (literally) look at governance: as a fully transparent, interactive, publicly-accountable system of leadership.

Here’s a little promo reel. Many more clips at the Sundance site.

This post originally appeared on The Imagination Blog.