I caught up with journalist and documentary filmmaker Jess Kelly for a chat on her newest, the 27 minute documentary Palestine Underground from Boiler Room which you can watch embedded below.


The film shows a scene that not many westerners have seen – indeed, as Kelly says below, not even many in the Arab world have seen it – Ramallah's underground music scene and (perhaps more importantly) the way it is spreading a message and ethos of freedom in the Arab world.

For the last 15 years, the internet has been a disruptive force allowing a handful of Palestinian DJs and artists in the West Bank to connect with Palestinians living in Israel (which they call "Occupied Palestine"). 

Palestine Underground follows Jazar Crew, a Palestinian music and arts collective from Haifa in the North of Israel. For the last ten years, they've been defying Israeli law to travel to Palestine to play parties and collaborate with the scene there – Saleb WahadBltnmOddz and Sama' – some of Ramallah's most talented artists.

One of the few techno DJs in Palestine, Oddz, regularly defies the apartheid wall and checkpoints to play in Palestinian-owned venues in Israel, risking three months imprisonment if caught. 

The story of Sama', Palestine's first female techno DJ and producer, is particularly fascinating in the context of the conservative values of her society. Now based in Paris, she has performed across the globe, including shows in Jordan, Egypt, UK, Italy, France, Belgium and of course Palestine.

The film gives a rare insight into the lives of these counterculture activists. For those involved, music and partying isn't just hedonism – it's about cultural survival. Nightlife culture allows them to break down geopolitical borders, reconnect with their people, and celebrate their Arab identity on the dance floor. 

The documentary culminates on Friday June 22 2018, when Boiler Room hosted its first ever party in Ramallah, the de facto capital of the Palestinian West Bank. Live streamed to their international audience of 260+ million, the daytime outdoor party hosted by Jazar Crew and friends showcased an underground music scene peacefully reacting against one of the toughest political feuds in history. It stands as a historical chapter in the scene's ten-year existence, an ecstatic celebration of its creativity and strength, shared globally. 

The way the music and the scene are spreading freedom in this part of the world is pretty remarkable. I highly recommend watching Palestine Underground above and sharing it across your socials – which is how we can help spread that message of freedom.


What initially inspired the creation of the film?

First and foremost it was the music. Deborah Ipekel, a Turkish DJ based at Boiler Room, heard Muqata'a and the Saleb Wahad guys online and from there she discovered a whole network of DJs and producers in Palestine who were making really exciting music. I'm not a music geek at all but I really struck by how unique and yet accessible their sounds was.

There isn't much of a music infrastructure in Palestine but their stuff was still incredibly slick. The political overtones were also incredibly intriguing. The film presented an opportunity to subvert the traditional media narrative that Palestinians are victims, instead we wanted to show how they are excelling. 

That scene is something I have no doubt most westerners really have no clue about. What do you hope western audiences who watch the film will take with them?

Yes, and I think that it was a surprise even for people in the Arab world. Ultimately I hope that audiences will start tapping into the scene there, download these artists' music, and even travel to Palestine to check it out for themselves.

Absolutely. What were the challenges in filming?

The biggest challenge was a logistical one of having to shoot four different parties in three different cities in the space of five days, it's exacerbated by the fact that the separation wall means you can end up traveling hours out of your way in order to hit the right checkpoint.  

It was really important to me to convey the reality of that wall which is why I chose to open the film with Oddai illegally jumping over the wall in order to play a party in Israel. It would have been be too dangerous for the whole crew to film the crossing so instead our Palestinian camera assistant Michael Zananiri filmed  Oddai going up to the wall up to a safe point, and then fixed Oddai up with a GoPro to record the actual crossing.

Quick thinking. I love seeing those kinds of solutions in filmmakers. Even though yes the barrier itself is horrible.

Still of the GoPro scene from Boiler Room's PALESTINIAN UNDERGROUND.

The other challenge was actually getting the footage back to the UK: we faced heavy questioning in Ben Gurion airport, and one of the suitcases containing a copy of the rushes was held for a week by Israeli security.

Fascinating, as I never get to talk to filmmakers facing that sort of thing in that part of the world. Switching gears from that terrible authoritarianism, any funny or memorable moments stick out while filming?

The morning after the Boiler Room party we'd set an unrealistically early start time for filming the next scene, and when I came down to reception I discovered that key members of the crew had actually slept elsewhere the night before! I was a bit angry school mistress about it at the time but looking back I'm glad.

[Laughs] Nice.

What do you see the challenges being in spreading the kind of freedom that the film advocates and shows through music? It seems to me that was a pretty large take-away. This is a way to spread a message of empowerment in the Palestinian world.

The biggest challenge to spreading the kind of freedom the film advocates is the current political situation. Under the Trump administration things have gotten much worse for Palestinians who are looking for an end to the occupation and a long term solution. The Israeli government is more far right that it has ever been, people in Gaza are still living under total blockade with periods of intense violence and illegal settlements continue to go up in the West Bank.

What can our readers do to help in spreading that message?

Obviously I would encourage people to share our film! Music is a great entry point from which to explore the conflict but ultimately you need to make your own mind up about where you stand, and I think visiting Palestine and seeing it for yourself is the best way to do that. 


A question I ask everyone: favorite films and directors? Which have really molded and shaped you as an artist?

I take a lot of inspiration from fiction directors who allow documentary elements to seep into their films. Andrea Arnold is a good example, I was really taken with her film Fishtank when I watched it 10 years ago. The immediacy of the dialogue and the unpolished characters are some of the things I love most about what you can achieve by documenting real life.

I'm going to have to check her work out. What makes a great film?

Apart from characters that intrigue people and a narrative that twists and turns I think that a great film distills one single thing that is incredible about the world or humanity, and that leaves you feeling uplifted. 

Fantastic answer. Our final question, what's next for you?

I'm currently directing a film about Saudi Arabia for BBC3. It's about a girl, who was born in Saudi but grew up in northern Ireland, returning to Saudi so she could live there. We were there right after the Khashoggi murder hit the news so the level of fear and paranoia on the ground made filming incredibly tough, but I'm still confident we've captured something quite unusual.