Film review: Missed opportunities in “Checkpoint Rock”

A scene from Checkpoint Rock.

Sometime early this decade the Israeli army issued a military order banning Palestinian musicians from using simile and metaphors. This order also prevented them from singing about anything but the occupation. Ok, that’s not actually true. But if your only contact with Palestinian music was through the documentary Checkpoint Rock you could be forgiven for coming to that conclusion. Basque singer Fermin Muguruza and documentarian Javier Corcuera apparently spent five years filming and in that time they managed to gather enough material to present a distorted and reductive picture of the Palestinian music scene.

The film opens with the funeral of Mahmoud Darwish and a Basque-language voiceover that seems to portend a deeply personal documentary inquiry into artistic life under occupation. This is quickly abandoned as the directors begin filming their subjects performing their most baldly political songs and relating how the politics of Palestinian dispossession, and nothing else, shaped their music. When apolitical or less overtly political songs are sung, such as during Amal Murkus’ beautiful rendition of “Ya Oud,” they are quickly followed up with overt politicization of any and all motivations for musicianship. It’s very problematic interpretation of culture, something like a North American or European left-wing activist’s version of what the Palestinian struggle really means, where every song is sung about the occupation, every breath is expelled in rebellion and every fart is contemptuously directed at an Israeli soldier. Even when decent occupation-related songs are presented they are often interrupted to expound about the occupation, such as during the Acre-based sextet Walla’at’s “Love at the Checkpoint.”

The directors follow members of the hip-hop trio DAM to various locales throughout Israel and the occupied West Bank as they meet with various musicians and join them in song from time to time. This is where the lack of a coherent narrative is most apparent. The purpose of roads and highways in film is quite often to bridge physical locations in diverse settings. The road segues in Checkpoint Rock do not accomplish this. Despite using voiceover bridges, or featuring one subject in sequential areas and the car, the film still feels like each scene is a separate short, and not part of a broader narrative. It’s a sharply illustrated problem with Checkpoint Rock being preceded by two years by the far superior Slingshot Hip Hop, Jackie Salloum’s documentary about Palestinian rap. Checkpoint Rock takes a broader sampling of the variety of music but Slingshot illuminates an artistic culture in far more depth, revealing both personal and political narratives of artists and the context in which they create. Checkpoint Rock fails on this part, with any revelations being largely superficial.

The film’s technical aspects are highly competent with quality digital production, effective shot framing, and superb sound editing. This professional sheen combined with the broad cross-section of quality Palestinian artists included, if poorly represented, makes the film something other than a total loss. Additionally the short discussions of Darwish that pepper the film are sometimes very interesting as is the occasional insight provided by the subjects that Mugurza and Corcuera would have done well to include more of.

However, the dearth of political, historical or cultural context will leave foreign audiences not familiar with the occupation or Eastern Mediterranean art and music in the dark. The lack of significant insight into the historical or personal origins of the music, or even the historical context of political Palestinian art beyond a superficial discussion of some of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry will leave audiences familiar with the art forms represented largely unengaged. The lack of critical cultural discussion or insight, along with the general theme of shallow inquiry will render the film largely redundant to Palestinian audiences. Radical and popular cultural activism can shift the body politic in enormous ways, even if that activism is not laid out in explicitly political terminology. This is as true in Palestine as it is anywhere else and the filmmakers missed an opportunity to show us how it’s being done there.

Checkpoint Rock will be featured at the ninth annual Chicago Palestine Film Festival, 16-29 April 2010. Click here for ongoing coverage from The Electronic Intifada.

Jimmy Johnson is a supermarket employee in southeast Michigan and can be reached at johnson [dot] jimmy [at] gmail [dot] com.