The Israeli movie “Ajami,” co-produced by an Israeli Palestinian and an Israeli Jew, was named this week as one of the five Oscar nominees for best foreign-language film. It takes its name from a rough neighborhood in Jaffa, a mostly Arab city just south of Tel Aviv.
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.
Voices are already being heard denouncing the “bleeding-heart Tel Avivians” who voted for the film or others criticizing Scandar Copti for daring to collaborate in writing and directing the screenplay with Yaron Shani, who is Jewish.
Some people will certainly depict this pair of directors as an attraction, and some will push them to come out politically based on the preference of the people doing the pressuring. If viewers throughout the world only ignore all those empty manipulations and vote for the film with their wallets.
They should, because while “Ajami” is a sophisticated detective story, it also manages to contain, in the terse way characteristic of great art, not “only” the complexity of life in Jaffa’s hardscrabble streets among Arabs between themselves and Arabs from other places, but also the complexity of the loaded encounter between Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Christians, and Arabs from Israel and their relatives in the territories. All are shown multidimensionally.
Ajami Director Yaron Shani (L) stands with actors from the film (from 2nd L-R) Hilal Kabob, Shahir Kabaha and Eran Naim during a news conference in Jaffa, just outside central Tel Aviv, February 2, 2010. The Israeli film was nominated for best foreign language film for the 82nd Academy Awards Tuesday. The Oscars will be presented in Hollywood March 7, 2010. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen
Make no mistake: the film is not apolitical. In fact, it is very political, but deals with a much deeper question than “who is right, Jews or Arabs?”
Its political power is in daringly revealing — never before seen in an Israeli film, and perhaps in no other Israeli art form — the mud into which all of Israeli society is sinking: Jews and Arabs alike, but Arabs more so, and poor Arabs most of all.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict flows, as in reality, through the plotlines, but the directors do not use it even for a moment in the usual boring way.
What crazy dissonance. On the one hand Israel will be represented in the world with a superior Jewish-Arab film, with Arabic dialogue and Arabic music, created in Jaffa only 62 years after the Jaffa elite left, followed by the flight and expulsion of many others, leaving the city bereft of its splendor. Yet the film was chosen precisely at a time when an evil spirit is growing stronger, bearing on its wings the Netanyahu-Lieberman government in whose name Israel’s Arab citizens are being shoved aside into a shadowy corner.
And as if completely ignoring this spirit, soaring above it and even having mercy on it, the film presents itself simply as an Israeli story, taking place in the quintessential Israeli reality, and speaking an Arabic that exists in one place only — in Israel, because it is an Arabic mixed with Hebrew expressions.
This film is a depressing, hopeless tragedy, but at the same time a human comedy in which people melt into each other, like the words.
This is the reality of the film, and it is indeed reality. Not wild incitement representing the Arabs as a fifth column. Rather, Arabs who were born here before and after the establishment of Israel, who are part of it and are not going away. They are indeed Palestinians, bitter over the existence of the State of Israel, but they are Israelis and citizens of the state, like every Jew.
Now one may only hope that these two talented directors will win international accolades, because they deserve it. Perhaps, in the spirit of the film, we can dream that Israeli society might someday slough off the ethnocratic paranoia that is consuming the foundations of its existence, recognize the great richness in the mixture of the Jewish and Arab cultures, and instead of violence and hatred, bring forth creativity.
Reprinted from Haaretz, March 2009.