One Conflict, Many Views, No Actors (The New York Times)

January 31, 2010



THE Israeli movie industry, once a sorry mix of ethnic melodrama and soldier slapstick, has come distinctly into its own in the past decade with a crop of admired writers, directors and actors. For two years now an Israeli film of subtlety and power has made the Oscars’ final five for best foreign picture: “Beaufort” in 2008 and “Waltz With Bashir” last year. So the fact that yet another Israeli film is among the shortlisted nine this year comes almost as no surprise.

But everything else about the film, a tribal crime drama called “Ajami,” is utterly unexpected: It is mostly in Arabic; it was co-written and directed by two novices, a Jew and an Arab; the actors were not professionals, they had no scripted dialogue, and the budget came in at under $1 million.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the movie, however, is what it does to viewers. In a conflict where each side lives and breathes its own victimhood, feeling the hurt of the other is a challenge. “Ajami” meets it. When a Palestinian youth turns to drug selling to help pay for his mother’s surgery, Jewish filmgoers here have wept. When the family of a kidnapped Israeli soldier breaks down over his murder by Palestinians, Palestinians in the theater have had tears in their eyes.

“I consider that our biggest achievement,” said Scandar Copti, the Arab member of the directing pair.

His Jewish colleague, Yaron Shani, elaborated: “People live in bubbles unaware of each other. Each side has its narrative, each side has its dreams and sees the other as threatening those dreams. But if you enter the other’s bubble, you see his dreams, his inner world and his values. Our idea was to make the audience experience what it meant to be the other.”

There are many competing narratives in “Ajami,” not just those of Jews and Arabs but also of West Bank Palestinians under occupation versus Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, Christians versus Muslims and urban Arabs versus Bedouins. The action takes place inside Ajami, a poor Arab but increasingly Jewish and gentrified part of Jaffa, the ancient port that abuts Tel Aviv to its south.

The story begins when a member of a prominent Bedouin family demands protection money from the owner of an Arab restaurant, leading to a shooting and vendetta against the men of the restaurant family. Along the way there is a doomed love affair between a Christian girl and a Muslim boy, a tough Jewish policeman whose soldier brother is kidnapped in the West Bank and an illegal West Bank Palestinian restaurant worker whose mother needs that expensive operation. Each tribe is seen in its deepest frailty by the viewer but feared as the powerful enemy by the others.

All the characters in the film are portrayed by nonactors. Many, like the cops playing cops or a Bedouin judge playing a Bedouin judge, act as versions of themselves. The directors trained them during a year of workshops where they were placed in dramatic situations and urged to react as they would in life. For the film itself, many scenes were shot without the actors knowing what was about to happen, only their general circumstances. A child is murdered, creating pandemonium. Dialogue in Hebrew-flecked Jaffa Arabic comes straight off the streets. The result is a film that feels at times like journalism.

Mr. Shani, 37, said that while in film school at Tel Aviv University 12 years ago he came upon the idea of steering away from professional actors.

“I had written a script and had gotten actors to act in it,” he recalled, sitting at an editing table in his Tel Aviv studios. “When the scene ended, and the camera stopped, I watched the interaction among the actors, and I realized that was what I wanted, the genuineness of the way they were talking at that moment rather than the acting that had gone on before.”

Mr. Shani began to explore documentaries as well as the work of directors like Ken Loach, the English social realist who has made films about homelessness and working-class struggles, and who largely prefers unknown talent to established actors.

Within a few years Mr. Shani became the director of a student film festival and wanted to get young people to make short films about their lives and surroundings. He was fascinated by Jaffa because of its history, crime and tensions. Thousands of years old, a once-glorious port known for its citrus industry, Jaffa is now well known for its underworld ways and rejection of Israeli law.

In recent years, due to its commanding location of the sea, Jaffa has attracted well-off Israelis, and its traditional cramped apartments are being replaced by the local equivalent of McMansions, producing keen tensions with the local Palestinians (also represented in the movie). “The place itself is unique and had never been portrayed in Israeli cinema before — an Arab ‘ghetto’ inside the main Jewish center of Israel,” Mr. Shani said.

In Jaffa he was introduced to Mr. Copti, an Ajami native, Christian and graduate of Israel’s top engineering college, the Technion in Haifa.

“I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer, but all the men in my family do it, so that is what I studied,” Mr. Copti, 34, said. The chance to make a short film about his neighborhood intrigued him, and along with a friend he made a 12-minute mockumentary about local myths called “The Truth.” He also co-starred in it.

Mr. Shani, the son of a high school teacher and jewelry maker, realized he had found a major talent as well as a creative soul mate, and he suggested that he and Mr. Copti write a script together and base the story in Ajami. He had a structure he wanted to employ: events told from several points of view and not in chronological order, so that the audience only fully discovers the truth at the end.

For four years, with Mr. Copti working as a waiter and Mr. Shani as an assistant to the respected Israeli film director Eran Riklis (“Lemon Tree,” “The Syrian Bride”), the two, both still unmarried (each has since married, and Mr. Shani has a child), would meet at each other’s places and develop story ideas and ultimately a script.

Then they solicited the actors. Mr. Copti, whose mother is a social worker and school founder in Jaffa, used his connections to find the people and settings. Posters were put up around the neighborhood, and clubs and social centers were canvassed. Mr. Shani did the same in search for those who would play a Jewish policeman and his family.

From hundreds of volunteers, the pair chose their cast and began the workshops.

“One of our tasks was to liberate them from the tendency to perform in front of a camera, so that they could become themselves,” Mr. Copti said, speaking at a favorite bookstore-cafe at the edge of Ajami.

Money was a nagging concern; the pair found little interest among investors for their experiment. In the end some money came from Germany, some from France and the rest from the Israeli Film Foundation.

They shot for just over three weeks, and all the locations were lent by locals, notably the restaurant where Mr. Copti had been working as a waiter. Hundreds of others in the neighborhood also lent a hand or a car or made meals for the cast and crew.

When the picture opened at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer, after some seven years in preparation, it was widely hailed as a production of rare texture and truth. And last September, it took all the major awards (best picture, directing, screenplay, editing) in the Ophirs, Israel’s version of the Oscars.

In a way it was the ambition of two unknowns that was most impressive — a narrative with Faulknerian perspective shifts, a compelling cast of amateurs and a story whose loves are indistinguishable from its tragedies. It is a film that brings Middle East peace no closer but explains why it is so far away.

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