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Parallel Lives in Urban Israel

Arabs’, Jews’ raw emotions ground Israel’s low-budget Oscar contender.

by Tom Tugend

December 3, 2009 | 7:46 pm

From left: “Ajami” co-directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani. Photo courtesy Kino International

From left: “Ajami” co-directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani. Photo courtesy Kino International

Like ads for the December holiday shopping season, which now start around the Fourth of July, the drumbeats for the Oscar and Golden Globe awards seem to resound earlier each year.

As an early alert service for our readers, nominees for the Golden Globes will be announced at 5 a.m. on Dec. 15, while the laggard Academy won’t reveal its nominees until 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 2.

The winners — if you can stand the unbearable suspense — won’t be crowned until Jan. 17 for the Golden Globes and March 7 for the Oscars.

Following tradition, herein we will focus first on Jewish-interest entries among the foreign-language films from 65 countries, ranging from Albania to Vietnam, competing for Oscar honors.

This year, one Israeli and six European movies meet our flexible criteria for “Jewish interest,” which includes any film bearing on World War II and the Holocaust, an era that continues to haunt filmmakers.

The Israeli film academy broke new ground this year by choosing as its top choice “Ajami,” a picture focused on the country’s Arab population that is filled with predominantly Arabic dialogue.

A close runner-up was “Lebanon,” a powerful film shot entirely from the perspective of a crew of Israeli soldiers inside a tank.

But after two Oscar-nominated movies dealing with the Lebanon wars — “Beaufort” and “Waltz With Bashir” — missed the top prize at the Academy Awards in the last two years, the apparent feeling in Tel Aviv was to try a different subject.

Ajami is the name of a Jaffa neighborhood, where Arabs and Jews live side-by-side, but segregated, in mutual suspicion and hostility.

Although now partly gentrified, it is still a rough place, akin to New York’s old Hell’s Kitchen, with its own Arab mafia, illegal Palestinian workers, drug dealers, tough Israeli cops and an Orthodox Jewish enclave within the enclave.

There are also Jewish and Arab mothers who try to raise families and shopkeepers who try to make a living and who hope that their children won’t get caught in the crossfire. It’s all far away, in milieu if not in distance, from the romantic Jaffa seafood restaurants bordering the Mediterranean, patronized by foreign tourists and Israelis.

The film is the creation of two young Israelis, the Jewish Yaron Shani and the Christian Arab Scandar Copti, who worked nine years, from conception to wrap-up, to make their first feature movie.

Copti and Shani have divided the film into four “chapters,” which seems to confuse rather than clarify the complex plotline with its throng of characters, but the raw emotions of the protagonists, none professional actors, give “Ajami” its powerful impact.

There are touches of “The Godfather” in a Palestinian elder who mediates when an Arab shopkeeper kills a member of an extortionist gang, and of “Romeo and Juliet” in the romance between an Arab man and a Jewish woman, and, equally forbidden, between a Muslim Arab man and a Christian Arab woman.

Much of the emotional drive of “Ajami” derives from the approach of the two directors, who shot the scenes in chronological sequence, while the amateur actors worked without rehearsals and without knowing what came next in the plotline.

“Sometimes everything became so real and personal that we had to physically stop the scene so that no one would be injured,” Copti said. Cinema doesn’t get much more verité than that.

“Ajami” is Israel’s biggest box office hit this year, and it is a pity that it cannot be shown in Arab countries. That means, as Variety put it, “that the most intelligent critique of the occupation will remain largely unseen by a target audience starved of multidimensional fare.”

Shani, the Jewish co-director, is 36 years old, a graduate of the Tel Aviv University film school, with a somber view of Israeli society.

“We live in a very diverse culture and in a very conflicted society,” he said in a phone interview. “Each side, Arabs and Jews, tries to dehumanize the other side; it is difficult to deal with each other as real human beings.”

“Ajami” was made for $1 million, hardly enough to pay for cocktails and appetizers at a Hollywood launch party, with 60 percent of the money coming from German sources and 40 percent from the Israeli government’s film fund.

“We shot the film in 23 days, but it took more than a year to edit it,” Shani said. “Sometimes we would discuss a single scene for five days.”

Shani now lives in the unglamorous port city of Ashdod, with his wife and 11-month-old daughter, in the home of his in-laws. “I put every penny I had into the movie,” he said.

Copti, the Arab co-director and co-writer, was born 34 years ago in Ajami and still lives there. “There are now about 32,000 Jews and 18,000 Arabs living in Ajami, but we live as segregated communities,” he said.

To plot his movie, Copti drew on his own experiences, the reports of others and on “what could have happened.”

He acknowledged that there are drug gangs, discrimination and resentment of police in almost every large city in the world. But in addition, he maintained, the Arab citizens of Israel have to cope with racist laws.

“This is an uncomfortable place, where I always have to struggle to get my rights,” Copti said.

There are additional conflicts in the film. The friends of one affluent Palestinian (played by Copti) upbraid him when he brings a Jewish girlfriend to a party. However, the father of a Christian Arab girl is even more outraged when she falls in love with a Muslim Arab.

None of these conflicts prevented Copti and Shani from forming a deep personal friendship. “We may have some differences in our points of view, but we love each other as human beings,” Copti said.

Indeed, now that the nine years of labor on “Ajami” are over, Copti will get married in December, and Shani will be an honored guest.

One puzzling absence among the foreign film entries this year is that of a Palestinian contender. This despite the fact that such films have won critical praise in past years, and that this year a top-notch picture like “Laila’s Birthday” would have made a strong contender.

The Journal tracked down Ismail Eitedal, who heads the cinema department of the Palestinian Ministry of Culture, but she seemed equally puzzled.

“We had three possible films we could have entered, but none of the producers made a submission,” Eitedal said. “But we’ll have something next year.” n


“Ajami” will screen at the Laemmle theaters in West Hollywood and Encino starting Feb. 12.

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