Freedom Dabka Group has been celebrating Palestinian heritage and culture in Bay Ridge for nearly 10 years, and now their passion and joy are being shared far and wide in a new short documentary that premiered at South by Southwest this week.
“Coming Home,” directed by filmmakers Naim Naif and Margot Bowman, follows the members of the Palestinian folk dancing group through the streets of Bay Ridge, in and out of their favorite neighborhood niches and into the family home of the group’s founder, Amer Abdelrasoul.
The film’s associate producer, Ali Rosa-Salas, lives in New York City and is heavily involved with the music and art scene, Naif said, and told Bowman about the group when she discovered them. Bowman, in turn, spoke to Naif, and the two decided to partner up and make a documentary about the team.
“We wanted to make something that had a sense of gravitas about it, and like, historical significance,” Bowman said. “And to contribute to the record of New York City and the community that the film is about. It felt important to make something that would last.”
“When I’m in Bay Ridge, I feel closer to who I am,” Abdelrasoul says in the film. “I’m not going to say closer to home, but closer to my culture, to my people.”
Naif himself is Palestinian-American and spent four years of his childhood living in the West Bank with his family. When he moved to New York from his longtime home in Florida a few years ago, he didn’t know about the size and strength of the Palestinian community in Bay Ridge, he said.
“I felt like a part of me was just not existing, and that was my Arab-ness,” he said. “I think I was craving that environment, so it was so amazing to be able to make this film and create connections with other Palestinian people and families in New York City, where I live.”
During a scene filmed in Abdelrasoul’s home with his parents, Naif said, you can hear him in the background speaking Arabic with his mother — who was insisting he and the crew eat something.
“Every, like, five minutes, or two minutes, she’d be like, ‘Come on, sit down, Naim, come on, eat, eat,’” he said. “And I was like, ‘I will, I will, but we’re rolling on film and it’s expensive, we’ve got to keep going.’ But it felt like I was surrounded by my family.”
Naif met up with the dance crew — who he refers to as “the boys” — to scout for filming locations on the day President Biden won the election, he said, and Bay Ridge was lively. They showed him around the neighborhood, bringing him to the park they grew up playing in, which features in the opening shots of the film, the grocery store where they know the owner, the tire shop owned by a friend.
“All these locations were these pieces of their lives that are very in their cycle of day-to-day,” Naim said. “And we just kind of followed them. They love hanging out at their friend’s tire shop, and they love hanging out on the streets of Bay Ridge.”
“I feel like the Dabke itself is something we kind of point to as a very specific, like, tradition that facilitates connection in the community,” Bowman added. “But all these locations, these are places that do something similar too. They’re building a sense of belonging and community through place.”
Shots of modern-day Bay Ridge are cut through with clips and stills from modern day and historic Palestine from The Palestinian Museum’s digital archives. Naif said they wanted to use the archival footage to represent the past, present, and future of Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora, which is scattered across the world.
“A lot of those boys in the film are exiles,” Naif said. “They speak perfect Arabic, and they know everything about Palestinian culture, but they’re from the 1948 territories. They’re called 48ers — when the day of the Nakba happened, their families became refugees and could never return.”
Their experience parallels Naif’s and that of many Palestinian-Americans, who find themselves unable to visit their family’s homeland or even to visit relatives still living overseas. For Palestinians watching, Naif said, he hopes the film feels familiar and beautiful — and for Westerners, it’s a welcome shift in the most popular narrative.
“Westerners or non-Palestinians only hear about Palestine through traumatic events on the news,” he said. “We kind of wanted to disrupt that narrative.”
The scene featuring Abdelrasoul’s children and parents felt especially important for that goal, Bowman said. Everyone has been at an intergenerational meal, everyone has seen the dynamic that plays out between Abdelrasoul’s parents as his mother gently corrects his father on a detail of a story he’s telling.
“I think inserting these moments of universal experiences into the specificity of this community was a really important way to connect people,” she said. “I think at the end of the day, that’s kind of the end goal of the film.”
Bowman and Naif sent the finished film to the boys ahead of its first showing at South by Southwest, and though they haven’t been able to watch it all together yet, they’re hoping to organize screenings in Brooklyn sometime soon, where cast and crew can all attend.