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Israel: “Ajami” Reveals Nuanced Look at Israeli Society

The film “Ajami” was the big winner at last night's Ophir Prizes and will continue on to international audiences as Israel's foreign film nominee for the 2010 Academy Awards.

“Ajami” is named for the eponymous Jaffa neighborhood where the story unfolds. Written and directed by the Arab-Jewish team of Scandar Copti (a resident of Ajami) and Yaron Shani, “Ajami's” complex storyline reflects a popular narrative style in Israeli literature and film.

With recent accolades piling up from the Ophir Prize and the Cannes and Jerusalem Film Festivals, “Ajami's” path is reminiscent of Israel's recent Oscar nominees, “Beaufort” and “Waltz with Bashir.” To date, “Ajami” has been the recipient of Ophir Prizes for Best Film, Best Directing, Best Script, Best Editing, and Best Composition, as well as the Camera D'or- Special Mention at the Cannes Film Festival, and the Wolgin Prize for best feature film at the 2009 Jerusalem Film Festival.

The movie's trailer is available via YouTube in Hebrew and Arabic with Hebrew subtitles (no English available at this time). You can also learn more by visiting its Facebook fan page.

Yudit of OCCUPIED is intimately connected to the movie as she lives in the neighborhood where the story occurs. She reflects:

It hits you in the face, Scandar Kopti's and Yaron Sheni's movie “Ajami”‘ bluntly. It's overpowering. And yes, this is where i live. It's about “my” neighbourhood. Of course this is not going to be an objective film review. I know most, no, almost all of the actors, at least by face and some are very good friends. The cast has been trained, but they are not professional actors, just my neighbours, more or less playing themselves, situations they know, reacting naturally as they would have done were the story real. It could have been real.

“Ajami” is also the subtitle of Yudit's blog. She explains:

Ajami, Agami or Adjami, or however you spell its name, it's home. In spite of all. The word “home” carries many associations. Mine is located in Jaffa (Yafo), once (meaning before 1948) “The Bride of the Sea”, now a slummy southern Tel Aviv suburb.

Carmia of Kishkushim describes “Ajami” as:

A gripping tale of all the balagan [chaos] that goes on in Ajami: relations between Jewish and Arab neighbours, West Bankers and Israeli Arabs, Christians and Muslims, and everything in between.

Ayelet Dekel of Midnight East chronicles her reactions upon viewing the film at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

If I had been given a summary of the movie’s plot, I might not have been attracted to it, as its events belong to a genre I don’t particularly like. Yet Ajami is so much more than its plot, as people are so much more than a description of the circumstances of their birth and the events of their lives.

Dekel also gives us a peek into the real life of Ibrahim Frege, who plays Malek, whom she met backstage after the film.

19 year old Frege said he had never thought of acting. While still in school, friends who participated in workshops of “Peace Child Israel” (an organization founded in 1988 by David Gordon and Yael Drouyannoff to teach coexistence using theater and the arts) invited him to come along just for fun. He participated in the theater workshop for a year, and then received a phone call asking him if he would like to be in the movie. He thinks they were looking for someone with an accent similar to that which might be heard in Nablus, his character’s hometown.

Finally, film critic Yair Raveh of the Cinemascope blog postulates whether “Ajami” could garner an Oscar nod.

Could “Ajami” become the third Israeli film in three years to get a nomination for best foreign language Oscar (after “Beaufort” and “Waltz With Bashir”)? Regretfully, I have to say I doubt it. “Ajami” is an outstanding film, and in many ways a breakthrough in Israeli cinema, but it might be too realistic, gritty, true-to-life, and perhaps too confusing for the average Oscar voter. And it lacks the pre-awards buzz that “Waltz With Bashir” had last year, and “Lebanon” is getting right now. But, who knows.

Recommended Reading–

Israel: Film Illustrates Problem of Closed Gaza Borders (Maya Norton)– Israeli bloggers respond to the short film “Closed Zone,” directed by Yoni Goodman

- Lebanon: Lebanese Bloggers React to Israeli Film “Lebanon” (Antoun Issa)– Responses from Lebanon on an Israeli film chronicling soldiers’ experiences during the Lebanese civil war (1975- 1990). “Lebanon” follows “Waltz with Bashir” as the second film on this topic from Israeli directors in two years

- Cannes Film Festival: Sources of Hope, Amid a Divide (Joan Dupont, New York Times)– three films about Israelis and Palestinians debuted at Cannes this year. Dupont interviews “Ajami” directors Copti and Shani

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