Ajami, a film by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani

images 2The scene takes place in Jaffa, an ancient commercial port connected to Tel-Aviv since 1950, once the 1948 war had emptied it of most of its Palestinian population. The district of Ajami, origin of the film’s title, has retained that flavor of heterogeneity. Indeed, Jews, Muslims and Christians live side by side. Yet the Judeo-Arab conflict still poisons the atmosphere. However, the conflict is never made explicit in the usual way. Here, the central conflict of the area is tackled indirectly through the problems of everyday life: Jewish police officers carrying out a search in the apartment of an Arab Christian Israeli, the same guy, the Arab Christian Israeli, in conflict with his Arab friends because they reproach him his going to live in Tel-Aviv with his Jewish girlfriend. There is also a Jewish policeman who wants to know the truth about the death of his brother, killed by an Arab guy during his military service, and more surprisingly, the movie shows us Arab Israelis who appear to be superior to Palestinian Arabs and are exploiting them.

We learn that the Arab population has to cope with the segregation imposed by the Israeli authorities, but that they also have to protect themselves against the Palestinian mafia which is just as cruel as the Jewish authorities. Far removed from any perspective of Jew/Arab binary opposition, the two directors, Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti bring to light the tensions existing inside of the Arab population itself. So we see that the picture of the area should not be portrayed over-simply or following Manichean political guidelines. And the complexity of the life in this district offers the perfect framework for a gangster movie. Shani and Copti wanted to be inspired by true stories. So they talked with the inhabitants of Ajami with a view to writing a script intertwining different stories under the sign of tragedy. Why invoke tragedy? Because at the beginning of the movie, the catastrophe is announced by Nasri (Omar’s little brother, one of the main characters) who has visions of how the future might be. We don't really know what is going to happen but we know that misfortune is waiting in the wings.

It is a choral movie build round 4 chapters. Each chapter tells us the story, focusing on the point of view of one of the four main characters and highlights new elements of the narrative. There are four main stories which are built around four different characters. Omar, a Muslim Arab Israeli, receives a deaths threat since his uncle has killed a member of the local mafia family. Why is Omar threatened, when he has no link with this murder? Because, his uncle has been killed and his father is dead, so he has become the chief of the family. He has to pay back the other clan to efface his uncle’s crime. The only solution is to find some money. Moreover, Omar is in love with the Christian daughter of a rich Palestinian, Hadir. He works in the restaurant owned by an influential person, Abu Elias. The reaction of Abu Elias was to be severe when he learned that Omar and his daughter were having a relationship. Hadir must undergo the law of patriarchy. Omar will have to undergo the treason of the father.

Then, there is Malik, a Palestinian illegal worker who works for Abu Elias. He has to get some money to pay for the operation that his mother has to undergo. Their friend Binj loves a Jewish girl, Shelly. He is torn between two worlds, no longer clearly knowing if the first is still his, and without being able to integrate the second (the Jewish). When in a Jewish nightclub, he answers the telephone in Arabic, the hostile looks that given him by Jews are very eloquent. Then, his brother stabs a Jewish neighbor. Someone gives Binj some of his brother”s drugs, and he stashes them away in his house.

There is also, Dando, a Jewish Policeman, who works in this district and is tormented by the disappearance of his little brother. All this may appear complicated to the reader, but the script is very clear. All the stories dovetail together perfectly. “Showing that Jews and Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis, tamper, scheme, become allied, rip  each other off and betray each other, the movie goes beyond the usual religious and geopolitical divides” [Serge Kaganski, Les Inroks, published on the website in April 02, 2010].

An ambivalent genre

A lot of film critics have seen in this movie a manner of revisiting the genre of gangster-movies. Indeed, there are “a lot of characteristics of this genre : drug-trafficking, arms-dealing, fights, settlings of scores, the figure of the traitor, duplicity, shared out between the families and the local Mafioso gang” [Serge Kaganski, Les Inroks, published on the website in April 02, 2010]. But the fact that the movie takes place in a multicultural place, more particularly in Israel with Arab characters, changes our way of conceiving this genre. The genre reshapes according to local color and customs. For example, there is an Arab-mafioso court during which a local judge, using the Koran as a reference, intends to reach an agreement between two clans. Moreover, in this movie normal persons are plunged into a world which is not theirs. In some way, the situation forces them to act in the way they do, and as they were not predestined to. For example, Omar starts to steal cars and to sell drugs because he has no choice, he has to get some money. Malik will betray one of his friends because he is embedded in a situation which he does not control and has to go into alliance to help and save his mother. But it is worth repeating that they all act like gangsters, but are not really necessarily so. They do not have the build for that. It is just that the world in which they live is rotting from within because of clan logic, fossilized by the withdrawal into one's own community, ruled by a perpetual chain of resentments and revenges, and driven by a self-destructive drive already beyond control.

Therefore, the most beautiful lesson of the movie is paradoxical: its existence itself constitutes a denial of the fate in which its characters are entrapped, because Yaron Shani is a Jew and Scandar Copti is an Arab and the project of the movie is full of this duality.

A co-directed movie

Ajami represents a unique reality in the Palestinian and Israeli cultures and the two co-directors, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani reflect the two perspectives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yaron Shani in an Israeli Jew, born in 1973.He graduated from the Tel-Aviv University’s department of Film and Television. His thesis film Disphoria won the Audience Award at the Babelberg International Student Film Festival.

Scandar Copti is a Palestinian citizen from the Israeli State. He was born and grew up in Jaffa. He graduated from the Polytechnic School of Israel but he decided to abandon his career as an engineer and follow up his life-long dream: to become a film-maker. He therefore studied starring and film writing and directed The truth, a documentary celebrated by the International Student Film Festival at Tel-Aviv. In Ajami he plays the role of Binj.

Besides, their different socio-political origins, Copti and Shani both decided to dive together into the reality of the inhabitants of Ajami in 2002. The film is the fruit of a courageous collaboration that lasted for 7 years and was finally awarded a “Caméra d’or” at the Cannes Film Festival. However, when the movie was later nominated for an Oscar, Scandar Copti refused to represent Israel in the category “foreign movies”. This event is emblematic of the complexity of relationships and identities in the Israeli-Palestinian context. 

The making of Ajami

The approach of Copti and Shani is both interesting and innovative in its treatment of the gangster-movie genre. One of the most difficult aims of the movie was to depict the genuine and unbiased reality of a very complex environment. In order to achieve this, they had to adapt their ways of directing and shooting.

First of all, all the actors are the actual inhabitants of the district of Ajami and are non-professional. The participants are therefore able to bring their own history and personality to the movie. Before shooting the movie, the co-directors organized workshops for ten months, throughout which the participants became the characters of the film. This way of filming sometimes tends to give the movie the appearance of a documentary, because reality is so well transposed into fiction.

Another interesting characteristic of the making of Ajami is that no script was given to the actors, who had no idea of the global scenario. Indeed, the scenes were filmed in a chronological order so that the story was being revealed to them as they actually acted. Copti and Shani would put the participants into realistic situations for them to act and react spontaneously.

The approach of Copti and Shani is very well illustrated by the scene of the Islamic trial, performed by an actual Islamic judge. Before they were allowed to film this scene, the directors had to follow the judge for months in his trials, throughout the South of Israel. During the shooting of this scene, only three to four persons knew they were actually taking part in a movie, the others just assumed it was a documentary.

The underlying themes

As we have seen, Ajami focuses on individual stories and the issues of the characters which enable the co-directors to subtly introduce some of the underlying themes that structure the Israeli society. As Yaron Shani says: “It is the story of human conflicts throughout human history”.

First of all, religion is omnipresent and the movie shows how Jews and Muslims do not share the same culture and traditions. The myth of Romeo and Juliet is taken up to illustrate this gap between the two communities. Indeed, the impossible love between the Christian girl and the Muslim boy is moving and helps the audience realize the religious barriers that structure the multi-confessional neighborhood of Ajami.

Then, the family is one of the central themes on which the whole movie is based.  Indeed, it is because of traditional family structure and values that Omar is designated as responsible for his uncle’s act. The theme of honor, and especially the honor of the family, also plays an important role in the conflicts which are staged in Ajami.

Finally, a latent racism inherited from the Israelo-palestinian conflict appears throughout the movie. However, the theme of racism is treated beyond the common stereotypes. Indeed, besides the well-known hatred between Israelis and Palestinians, the audience realizes the strong racism between the Palestinians settled in Israel and those Palestinian illegal workers who migrate to Israel in search of a job. While the former exploit their fellow countrymen, the others speak of them as “worse than collaborators”.