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Jewish-Arab crime film captures tensions

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Selected clips from Ajami, chosen to represent Israel at the Oscars

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Jaffa, Israel

"Where were you? Where were you?," screams the veiled woman on the screen, before breaking into heaving sobs.

She has already lost one son to drug-related gang violence and the other is late home.

"I was really crying, I wasn't acting," says Nisrin Rihan, one of the non-professional actors catapulted into the international limelight by the film Ajami.

Awad Katta, student, Ajami
Revenge is the problem - when someone gets killed it just goes on and on
Awad Katta
Ajami student

Next year, the gritty tale about mafia-style murders will become the first Arabic language film to represent Israel at the Oscars.

Like Ms Rihan, who has lost three relatives to gang crime, most of its actors are locals with first-hand experience of the sprawling, scruffy streets of Ajami, a former slum in the port city of Jaffa.

Impoverished Israeli Arabs shooting one another in the shadow of the gleaming towers of Tel Aviv is far from Israel's preferred international image.

And the aggressive police and brutal killing of a Jewish character shows a dark underside to the ideal of coexistence sometimes touted in mixed Jewish-Arab areas like Jaffa.

But many Israeli film critics and cinema-goers are nevertheless gushing over the film, shot in an intense, documentary style.

Directed jointly by Yaron Shani, a Jewish Israeli, and Skander Copti, an Israeli Arab born and raised in Ajami, it has so far clocked up the Israeli Ophir and Wolgin prizes, and a special mention in Cannes.

But in Ajami itself, the reaction is mixed.

Street in Ajami
Many people raised in Ajami now struggle to afford homes there

On a humid afternoon in a dim stone room, young Israeli-Arab men puff on shisha pipes and shuffle backgammon pieces.

"It's nothing but shooting and drugs, shooting and drugs - it's true, but it will ruin our reputation," says one youth.

Several say the film's bad language makes it unsuitable for female viewers. Some say it overplays the violence, or underplays police brutality.

But they recognise elements of Ajami life.

Nisrin Rihan, actress in Ajami
They don't know how to express themselves, when they fight the easiest thing is to pull out a gun or a knife
Nisrin Rihan
Actress, Ajami

"Revenge is the problem. When someone gets killed it just goes on and on…" says student Awad Katta,19.

"It's quiet now, but four or five years ago someone was killed every week."

Like many Israeli-Arab viewers, Mr Katta complains that the film makes scant reference to the poverty and historical oppression which he sees as being behind the violence.

Until the war which led to Israel being founded broke out in 1948, Jaffa was the considered the cultural capital of what was then British Mandate Palestine.

Thousands of its Arab residents fled during the fighting.

Israeli Arabs - people of Palestinian descent living in what is now Israel - lived under martial law for nearly two decades.

Since then they have faced widely documented discrimination.

A young man in Ajami "doesn't know if he's Palestinian or Israeli, he's confused, he doesn't know what he is, what he wants to do," says Ms Rihan.

"They don't know how to express themselves, when they fight the easiest thing is to pull out a gun or a knife."

"I'm shocked that Jews like the film more than Arabs, even though it shows that we are like this because of them!", she adds.

Scene from Ajami
The brutal world depicted in Ajami is far from Israel's preferred image

But many people who have seen the film describe it as more a human story than a political one.

Mr Shani says he and Mr Copti sought to resist casting the plot as a tale of oppressors and victims.

"It's not about who is bad and who is good, who is guilty and who is a victim, it's about human beings who have to live in this reality. Everybody sees this reality in a different way," says Mr Shani.

"Everything is political," he says, "but life is much bigger, it's much deeper, much more ambivalent, much more complex than some kind of political agenda".

He says he had long wanted to make a multi-perspective film about crime, but it was not until he became friends with Mr Copti that the two hit on the idea of a Jewish-Arab story set in Ajami.

Ajami directors Skander Copti (l) and Yaron Shani
Mr Copti and Mr Shani became close friends while making the film

"In this small neighbourhood, you have Arabs and Jews, Christians and Muslims, criminals, drug dealers, and people who have nothing to do with crime, you have very, very rich people and poor people," explains Mr Shani. "You have a lot of really condensed dramatic stories."

On the streets, Muslim mothers in long cloaks push buggies past a young woman in military uniform at a bus stop; vast new sea-view villas tower over crumbling low-rise homes.

Jewish and Arab Israelis alike say the film depicts strikingly the cultural and human tangle of the place.

As is common in Arabic conversations in Israel, the Arabic is peppered with Hebrew words.

And making the film had its complexities too.

The actors were not given the script, just thrown into scenarios and told to react.

Old Jaffa buildings
Jaffa was once considered the cultural capital of British Mandate Palestine

The directors prepared Ms Rihan for more than an hour, talking through her experiences, before her most emotional scenes.

And some sequences, such as those involving real life local policemen playing tough detectives, had to be shot with only one director present.

"If Skander was with us, they wouldn't have been true to themselves," said Mr Shani.

Over seven years, Mr Shani learnt Arabic and says he spent more time in Ajami with Mr Copti than with his own wife, immersing himself in "a totally different world".

Born in Israel to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, he says he has moved a long way from the values of military service and Zionist struggle with which he was raised.

"I think those values should change, they have to find room for other perspectives, for other people who got hurt in the process, other people who need to find salvation in this place."

"It is a very lousy cliche, that we are all human beings who want to be free to live in dignity, to be safe, but when you live it in your life, it becomes very true."



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