Punk Rock in the Holy Land!
"Within people there is always hope, why else would they sing?"
—Ian MacKaye commenting on the message of Jericho's Echo
Yesterday I had the pleasure of watching the debut screening of a new documentary by up-and-coming Bay Area filmmaker Liz Nord. Her feature-length film, Jericho’s Echo: Punk Rock in the Holy Land, turns the spotlight on the small but fierce punk scene in Israel. When most of us think of Israel, we think of war, Palestine, Jews and the Jewish faith—and that’s about it. If you’re a little more savvy or in the know you might add hummus and tabouli to the list, Ariel Sharon, and maybe the words kosher and kibbutz. But how often, if ever, do you think of the youth culture, particularly the alienated youth?
Well that’s the territory in which Nord stakes her filmic claim. I know her from boot camp, and when she mentioned once that she was working on film, I didn’t think much of it. Everybody in San Francisco is working on a film.
Two years later, i.e. last month, I received an Evite to the premiere screening, and I was still rather nonplussed. Everybody in San Francisco who works on a film eventually has a screening, often in someone’s garage. But the invite was to a real live theatre, so I started to take the whole thing a little more seriously. I even rounded up my Israeli friend, The Ron, and off we went, though I had to bribe him with a soft ice cream from McDonald’s. Once we got there, the slew of hipsters in front had the effect of a force field, repelling him back towards home, but I grabbed hold of him, and we found some seats. I was glad to see a full house, and even more glad to feast my eyes and ears on Jericho’s Echo. What a great film!
Here’s the thing. You think about a movie about punk music, and the expectation is that you’ll see a lot of mohawks and bodies hurling themselves around in a ring; you’ll see some spitting, some broken glass, maybe some blood, and if the music is loud enough your own ears will bleed. Instead, I felt like I got a taste of Israel in a way that made me want to go grab my guitar, shred my jeans, and book a flight.
The kids with whom Nord spoke were very articulate in defining how the politically charged atmosphere in which they’ve been raised—mandatory military service from the ages of 18 to 21, on-going conflict with a neighboring country that began before they were even born, suicide bombings, and religious-cultural-ethnic identity that is a blessing and source of pride to some and a burden to others—has informed who they are as young adults. These kids have a lot to say whether with feedback, pounding drums, and scathing, to-the-point lyrics or during the interview moments, gathered in their gathering places with their friends and band mates.
The diversity of viewpoints held in these small scene, a minority within a minority culture, was pretty wide. There were those who hold tight to their Jewish heritage and those who acknowledge their Jewish background as a cultural identity but shun religion; those who willingly conform to their military duty, and those who escaped conscription by faking mental illness, willing to suffer the consequences of being branded crazy for the rest of their lives (one person says that in the eyes of their society, the simple fact that you wouldn’t want to join the military proves you’re crazy); and those who sympathize with the Palestinians but were born on the land being fought over and so are indigenous too. Poignant scenes include meeting between one young rocker and his religous brother, who comes to a show but becomes offended by the lyrics.
Despite the different beliefs espoused by the bands, common threads emerged. All of them lamented the losses of loved ones as the decades old conflict wages onward, and all of them complained of a lack of homegrown Israeli culture and arts. Many commented on the strangeness of the absence of a 18- to 21-year olds on the streets during the week; weekends they get to go home.
Even with such deep topics, Jericho’s Echo came cross as a serious yet lighthearted movie-going experience. Mixing verite, performance footage, and well-crafted interviews, the audience was immediately hooked. The Ron wasn’t the only person nodding knowingly in moments when the speakers strugged to translate their thoughts and momentarily slipped into Hebrew. During one interview, a member of one band ernestly asks, “How do you say … Punkache in English?” “Pancake,” comes his bandmate’s reply.
Bands featured in the film include Useless I.D., Nikmat Olalim, Chaos Rabak and more. Though I’m not a huge fan of the genre, I have an appreciation for some of it. (Ian MacKaye of Fugazi served as one of the film advisors; I still have my copy of Repeater somewhere….) I thought the bands were pretty talented as far as musicianship goes; however, unless you consider Green Day punk, I don’t know that I would categorize some of what I heard as punk, but that was nice, too. In addition to the pop punk, the music ranges from surf punk to ska-influenced discord. Regardless of the style, the punk attitude was more than abundant, even amongst the clean-cut and well-groomed. But the obligatory visual punks were in evidence, too. There was even a girl-band, Va'adat Kishut. Their song “Titties”—“sounds like a disease”—brought some appreciative cheers from the movie-goers.
I didn’t stay for the filmmaker Q&A, nor did I make it to the after-party at the Elbo Room, but I do want to publicly congratulate Liz on her effort, which was superb. I can’t wait for the soundtrack—and the next film from a talented director and storyteller.