January 28, 2010
Israel’s Multicultural Ajami Contends for Best Foreign Film Oscar—in Arabic
Lost in all the international debate on the Israeli-Palestinian question is the fact that Israel has become a complex multicultural society. No film makes that more evident than Ajami—Israel’s strong entry into this season’s Oscar race.
Shot with mostly non-professional actors by Arab and Jewish co-directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, the film is a harsh reality-check on the country’s healthcare system, relations between police and the citizenry, inter-Arab gang rivalries, and the rift that separates Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The film explores five different stories in Ajami, an inner-city hood in Jaffa, which is to Tel Aviv as the Valley is to L.A. The narrative centers around a corrupt Jewish cop and several working-class Arabs, most of whom are bilingual although their cultural identity is strongly Palestinian. It is a gritty drama shot with a small budget, and the novice actors do some great—sometimes stupendous—work. The structure borrows from Memento and The Usual Suspects as it is fragmented and broken into chapters that are juxtaposed so as to play with our expectations of time.
The Arabs in the film come across as real people, even if most of them are involved in nefarious activity of one kind or another. The Jews are also real people who are not better or worse than the Arabs. There is racism in both directions, even as some characters are struggling to break free of boundaries: when for instance Hadir (Ranin Karim), a young Christian Arab woman, falls in love with Omar (Shahir Kabaha) and wants to marry him, her father considers a Muslim off-limits. Or when Binj—a Palestinian played by co-director Scandar Copti—wants to move in with his Israeli girlfriend, his friends think he’s become too comfortable with the Jews and stalk away angrily.
Ajami is not about the occupation per se, and its marketing campaign insists that it is “apolitical”; yet almost nothing about Israel and the Palestinians can ever escape the grim reality that has characterized this strained relationship since 1948.
To better understand Ajami’s reception inside Israel, it is instructive to read what Haaretz, the country’s liberal daily, had to say about Ajami after it had won attention at Cannes last year and then walked away with one of the country’s top film awards, the Ophir:
“First it should be said that the film Ajami is a masterpiece by any standard, and it rightfully garnered the Wolgin and Ophir prizes for best film. It is surprising, gut-wrenching, fascinating, shocking and brimming with humanity; written and shot wisely; directed and acted meticulously and powerfully; and accompanied by an excellent score….But another amazing achievement is not obvious: The film that will represent Israel to the world is in Arabic and was directed and written by two Israelis, an Arab and a Jew. One feels like shouting for joy.”
Yes, Ajami is almost entirely in Arabic, and this is perhaps the most surprising and ultimately rewarding pleasure of all, because in truth Israel has long thought itself a European outpost on the eastern Mediterranean seaboard. It has favored its relationships with Europe and the United States, while treating its Levantine and Middle Eastern neighbors like backwater cousins. Now it has become apparent that Israel’s Arabs (20% of the population) and Jews from Arab countries including Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia (nearly 50% of Israel’s Jewish population), are the country’s dominant cultural force. The question is, will Arabs and Arab Jews manage to coexist in such a way as to influence the formation of a neighboring Palestinian state, at long last?
Despite its grim storylines (ailing mothers who can’t afford the operations that will save their lives, Arabs killing each other for drugs or money or both, corrupt Jewish police who will stop at nothing to avenge Jewish deaths), Ajami proves satisfying because it demonstrates that Israel’s Arabs and Jews can and do work well together. It is quite powerful to see Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani together, speaking about their film, as I did during an early preview screening in January. As they walked on stage to introduce Ajami, Copti and Shani seemed almost related, like brothers or cousins. Their film reinforces the fact that there is ultimately very little that separates Arabs and Jews.
Jordan Elgrably is a journalist, editor at Levantine Review and a long-time observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.