Battles of Ajami

Fifty years ago, the Israeli film industry was largely churning out pro-Zionist propaganda films (Ephraim Kishon being the rare exception). To represent its face to the world in 2010, Israel brought to the Academy Awards an Arab-language flick co-directed by a Palestinian and a Jewish Israeli, focusing largely on inter-Arab issues; Ajami was one of the five nominees in the Best Foreign Film category.

The Palestinian co-director has been called a collaborator. Israel’s nominating committee has been demonized as a pack of lefties. But something is changing on the streets of Jaffa, whose citizens have been given, in Ajami, both a mirror in which to behold their own community and an international voice.

Ironically, it began as a screenplay that would illustrate the segregated state in which Israelis – Jewish Israelis, since screenwriter Yaron Shani didn’t know much about Arabs at the time – exist, each community distanced from the other by their own narrow perspectives. Then Shani read about the crime-ridden neighborhood of Ajami, where Muslims and Christians, criminals and cops, Jews and Arabs collide, and he decided to move his story there.

He began trading stories with Scandar Copti, a Palestinian resident of Ajami. They talked for hours, building a friendship, learning to trust, together finding real-life tales that would fit into the framework of a film designed to portray what happens when good people refuse to look beyond the boundaries of religious prejudice, tribal justice, racial hatred. Five stories intersect: a Christian Arab whose father would rather tear her limb from limb than let her marry the Muslim man she adores; an Israeli Arab trapped in a Bedouin blood feud; an illegal Palestinian worker from the occupied territories desperate to raise money to keep his mother alive; a Jewish cop whose brother has disappeared under mysterious circumstances; and a Palestinian bohemian (played by co-director Copti) who wants to make a life with his Jewish girlfriend. Even as their worlds exclude each other, their fates intertwine, with only one inevitable result: tragedy.

Not to get all biblical, less literal interpretations of the Exodus story view the former slaves’ forty years of wandering around in the desert as an opportunity to let the generation that had known captivity die, leaving the future to be determined by free men. It’s also said (by the same camp) that there will be no peace in the Middle East until the generation that fought to create the state of Israel – and the generation that fought so bitterly to destroy it – die, leaving the future to be determined by men and women who grew up with the reality of a heterogeneous Middle East.

Ajami isn’t about peace between Arabs and Jews. It isn’t about peace, period. It’s about dropping the labels of the old generation – hero, demon, martyr – in order to see your neighbor for what he is: a neighbor.

I recently got the chance to interview Ajami’s co-directors.
GELMAN-MYERS: Yaron, you wrote the screenplay when you were a student at Tel Aviv University. You really didn’t know too much about Arabs at that point. How did you decide to make it a Jewish-Arab thing?

SHANI: The screenplay was about people who live in different worlds who meet in different scenes, and in every scene, everybody has a different motivation, a different understanding. I only knew newspaper headlines about Ajami, but I knew that if the film could be in this scenery – a very small, condensed neighborhood, with cops and criminals, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, Palestinians from the territories and Israelis – it would be much more important and much more interesting.

GELMAN-MYERS: How did you two start to work together?

COPTI: I met Yaron at the Tel Aviv Film Festival, and one day he brought a screenplay to the restaurant where I worked in Ajami. He said, “I wrote this two years ago. Maybe we can work together on something.” We started meeting, just getting together and building trust. And we got to know each other and found that we love the same kind of cinema, the same kind of movies, and there it started. It was a seven-year process.

GELMAN-MYERS: Yaron, did it change your politics?

SHANI: My opinions are the same, but I address them from a much wider perspective. I was exposed to things I couldn’t imagine. There’s a huge gap between people in Israel, and this segregation is part of the problem. There’s not only the big conflict [between Jews and Arabs] but also differences between Orthodox Jews and secular Jews, and immigrants from here and there. Ajami, which is a film about a very narrow reality, is also a story about the human conflict. Because the human conflict is never simply between the just side and the wrong side…between evil and good…it’s always between people who are very devoted to their own truth, their own justice, to their own people, but they perceive reality in a different way.

GELMAN-MYERS: Do you think that that’s an existential condition or a political condition?

SHANI: It’s a political condition. The solution is for people to try to understand more than what they think and what they know. They have to open up to different perspectives, to understand where he comes from. What does he suffer? What are his wounds, his dreams? This is the only solution. If you get too concerned with your own suffering, your own traumas, your own justice, the other side becomes less human, less just; he has no rights, he is dehumanized. This is how war starts.

GELMAN-MYERS: You shot all your scenes without scripts.

SHANI: The film is totally fictional, totally controlled. We wrote the script, which is very precise, with dialogue, and everything. We knew precisely where we wanted to go and what the characters had to say. But we wanted it to come alive without us directing it. So the actors didn’t get a script. They reacted spontaneously to what happened to them like it was really happening to them. The whole film was shot chronologically from the first scene to the last. We shot the whole film in only 23 days.

GELMAN-MYERS: That’s a very difficult way to work.

COPTI: Yes. But the actors were so identified with the characters and what happened to them that when we put them in a scene, they immediately forgot it was a film. They lived the situation. And then they went to the next one charged with the feelings and the knowledge from the other scenes. I was an actor in this movie, and even though I knew the screenplay, when the cops came to my house, suddenly this magic also happened to me. I was really, really scared inside and I was angry when those policemen came to me. I was scared and angry. And this magic happened to all the actors.

SHANI: It became alive from itself. We didn’t tell anybody to cry. We didn’t tell anyone to say a line. It came out of them spontaneously. And that’s why though the film is fictional, it’s much closer to reality than any other fiction films.

GELMAN-MYERS: But what did you do when you needed a specific outcome and didn’t get it?

COPTI: Usually whatever we wanted, we achieved because we worked with our cast for ten months, and we knew each and every one of them. And also, of course, you know how people from Jaffa react when there’s a policeman in the neighborhood. But when things go wrong, you ask yourself, Is this wrong? Or can we use it?

GELMAN-MYERS: It’s a little bit the way Mike Leigh works.

COPTI: We didn’t invent this kind of cinema. Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, plenty of others did it…but I think we took it to the extreme. We did the entire movie like this.

SHANI: If suddenly some cop enters your place and he’s a real cop, you can see, you can feel from his language, the way he reacts, that he’s a real cop. [NB: The cops in the film were played by real-life cops.] It’s so strong, the feeling of reality is so strong that it’s like magic; you forget that it’s a film. You forget yourself. You believe that in this very moment it’s really happening.

GELMAN-MYERS: Talk about the with scene where the Bedouins hold the peace agreement.

COPTI: That scene was called a sulha or hagarab, which means “Arab justice.” It’s an alternative justice system that is still going on in Israel; when an Israeli court cannot solve a case, it sends it to a sulha and accepts the sulha’s verdict. Only three actors in the scene knew it was fictional. One was the judge, who is a real-life sulha judge. We used to meet with them every Saturday and go to sulhas with them to understand how it works. And then when we shot it, it was like a real sulha, where those three knew that it was fictional but all the rest thought it was a documentary. They were acting like in real life, with real emotions, but the judge knew that at the end of the scene Omar has to pay more money than he had. And we shot it. Two cameras, one hour.

GELMAN-MYERS: Did Omar know?

COPTI: Omar knew nothing. Omar didn’t know what was going to happen. He knew that he was going to go to this peace agreement and his fate would be decided there. Only the judge knew what he was going to decide, of course according to the laws of sulha, which are like any other laws, like in Western laws. When you kill a person, it depends on how you kill him. If you kill him in an accident, you get three years. Everything has its price. If you kill him in a war, you get nothing – you’re a hero. And if you murder him, you get 25 years. Every system has its own justice and its own price for everything.

GELMAN-MYERS: The film’s structure, as well as the way you cut – fragmented, not only from story to story but also within a story – usually produces an emotional distancing.

SHANI: Of course.

GELMAN-MYERS: So here you’re talking about all the emotions and reality and truth, but then you make a film that’s…

SHANI: Limiting itself.


SHANI: We made “mistakes.” [He draws quote marks in the air,] You shouldn’t tell a story for twenty minutes, then take a viewer to a totally different story, a totally different character. You shouldn’t do that because emotionally it disrupts concentration. But it was important for us to make you experience how different human beings live in totally different worlds. So we had to make you really identify with somebody, with his dreams, with his sorrows, and then tear you from him and throw you to somebody else to discover a totally new point of view.

GELMAN-MYERS: The press kit uses the phrase “tragic consequences of enemies living as neighbors.” I think that’s an unfortunate phrase.

COPTI: People perceive themselves as enemies because they’re so segregated from each other. And because of the context – Jews and Arabs – they are enemies. Even in Israel Arabs and Jews are friends, they work together, they go out and buy from each other in the market, sometimes they marry each other, but the big picture is that we are enemies.

GELMAN-MYERS: Is there a solution?

COPTI: In the Technion [Institute of Technology], a professor told me, “Everything has a solution.” So there is a solution, of course. There are millions of ways to end this thing. Everybody has his own way, but eventually there’s no other way to do it.

GELMAN-MYERS: Was there a political motivation in doing this film?

COPTI: Yes, of course.

SHANI: Yeah, it’s political, it’s social…

COPTI: It depends on what you mean by “political,” but for me, it was also a lot of self-criticism about my own community in Ajami. A chance to mirror ourselves and see ourselves from the outside without trying to put the blame on others; to take responsibility. Because usually when you are living in such a situation where you’re being oppressed all the time, you say, “OK, it’s not me. It’s them. They are bad. They are doing this to me. I cannot change anything. I don’t have any control over my life. I blame them.” I take away the responsibility from myself and I forget that the life I’m living is not normal. It’s not normal that kids on the street talk about crime and guns as if they were talking about surfing. So this movie was a chance for me to try to explore and to see and to try to understand myself and the life I’m living and ask: “How did we get to this point?” When I had the chance to re-create this reality inside a movie and to show it to others, it was important for us to photocopy reality, not try to victimize any of the sides, or beautify, or patronize anybody, or judge anybody. It’s reality as we see it. Not the whole reality, of course, but it’s a part of the reality as both of us see it. And now, take it!

SHANI: It’s like chunks of reality from different perspectives. Everybody understands reality in a different way. We wanted to give the stage to one character’s point of view without judging him, without patronizing him, without victimizing him, to let him speak to the world and show what he believes in, then go to another character.

GELMAN-MYERS: To give him a voice.

SHANI: Yeah, exactly.

COPTI: Yeah, exactly, you said it right. Because this movie really gave pride to the people of Ajami. They’re really proud of themselves. This is our story, and now our voice can be heard. And forget the movie…there’s a big discussion in Jaffa and other mixed towns in Israel about what has to be done. A lot of questions that were never asked. A lot of questions that had the answer, “Yeah, it’s occupation. Yeah, it’s racism.” But now people are saying, “OK, we don’t forget the big problem, but how do we solve the small problems between us” …you know, like questions that we raised in the movie, the relations between the cops, the Israeli police, and the Arabs – questions that people are talking about now. Because it’s a dilemma. The Israeli police represent the government, which has racist laws. But we are hurting each other, and maybe we should, I don’t know…

GELMAN-MYERS: Figure something out.

SHANI: Yeah. Nobody has the answers, but now people are asking the questions, which is one of the first stages in the solution and a kind of solution itself. In the stages of liberation, one of the first stages is to understand that you don’t have a good life, that your life can be better. Oppressed people think, “OK, I will be a cab driver. Why? Because Indians are cab drivers in New York. So I’ll be a cab driver.” And this movie opened up something. I can hear it in the street, I can hear it in schools and high schools where I go and meet people. So this is amazing.

GELMAN-MYERS: That is amazing. Congratulations.

From April, 2010