To boycott outright, or participate and endeavour to shake up the system and spark debate from within? When it comes to cultural events held in problematic political contexts, it’s an argument that has divided artists over and over — especially when it comes to Israel. The Palestine-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which has called on international artists not to play in Israel, arguing that culture is used as a soft-power tool by the Israeli state to whitewash its occupation of Palestinian lands and uphold apartheid, has strongly influenced global opinion. So when Hatari, a self-declared anti-capitalist, BDSM-inspired Icelandic band that has been outspoken in their support of Palestine decided to perform in Tel Aviv at 2019’s Eurovision Song Contest final, they drew anger and skeptical suspicion from both sides of the political divide, along with a fair share of support. Filmmaker Anna Hildur joins the band and their team as they touch down in the Middle East and try to navigate a way to artistic spectacle as meaningful solidarity and resistance in her documentary A Song Called Hate.
Different & marginalised
«Everything is politics,» says Mira Awad, who in 2009 became the first Palestinian (and «probably the last,» she adds regretfully) to represent Israel in Eurovision. This is a perspective on artistic practice, contradicting the event’s official stance that political statements have no place in the competition, that Hatari can readily agree with. Formed in Reykjavík in 2015, Hatari consists of cousins Klemens Hannigan and Matthías Haraldsson, along with Einar Stefánsson. From the beginning, the band cultivated a practice that merged performance art with music, as they tried to channel the outrage of, and affirming space for, those in society who are different and marginalised, even before their concerns turned to state oppression.
«Debauchery unconstrained; hangover uncontained,» the bondage gear-clad band sing on one of their tracks, their image a far cry from the kitschy, safe and upbeat acts courting the widest possible appeal they can that are typical of Eurovision line-ups. But it was exactly the chance to reach a mainstream global audience nearing two hundred million and challenge the format’s bubble (and with it, viewers’ thinking) that Hatari was excited by. «We’ve worked a lot with being an anti-capitalistic band that participates in a very capitalistic environment, so we thought Eurovision was a very interesting path,» they said of the fruitful ambiguities and tension.
The first nation
Iceland was the first Western European nation to recognise Palestine’s independence, and the small country’s strong support meant some at home agreed with BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti’s take that to participate in a Eurovision edition held in Israel is to «dance on Palestinians’ graves». But Hatari’s members held to the notion, in the face of controversy that they could have an agenda-setting influence and spark critical discussion by highlighting the context in which the entertainment extravaganza plays out. It was an approach underpinned by a belief in the power of a principled practice of serious intention in breaking down walls of difference «before hate prevails.» One of their ultimate hurdles, it turned out, were the measures against such provocative disruption enacted by Eurovision’s organisers, as the «live» performances are actually run on a buffer delay so that any divergence from approved plans can be censored. Despite this, Hatari managed to hold up Palestinian flags (banned from display) on the air in the green room after their performance — a brief gesture, but one that resonated strongly with many Palestinians rendered briefly visible by it.
«Everything is politics»
Perhaps more important than the Eurovision spectacle itself, the film shows the cross-cultural, human understanding that is fostered by visiting a place on the ground and getting to know locals face to face — a kind of knowledge that can never, ever be replicated from afar. As Itay Zalait, an Israeli contemporary artist says to the band: «It’s not really the story you sell to yourselves; it looks a lot different» — the inevitable gulf between imagined and experienced reality. Hatari’s members admit their overwhelm at encountering the sheer complexity of life in the region, as «tons of regular people» go about their lives amid all the polarised rhetoric, and aside from flattened internet discourse. They seek out the views of numerous other artists there (including government-critical Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid) and are taken on a trip to Hebron by Palestinian musician Bashar Murad, to the realities of prison-like living conditions in the West Bank. This connection between Hatari and Bashar resulted in creative collaboration, on a single released later that year in Icelandic and Arabic, with a music video shot in the desert by Jericho. While some critics of Hatari retained their stance that the band’s visit was all talk and still engaged in participatory complicity with the harmful aspects of Eurovision, the film is evidence that change springs not from a shut-down of contact, but from the malleable zone of engagement and an open curiosity that inclusively seeks ever-wider views.
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