Skipping the Summit for the Movies

Update: Ajami, the new Israeli film on tense relations between Palestinians and Jews in Jaffa, won the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar -- the Ophir Prize -- for best film at a Haifa ceremony on Saturday night. Ajami's Jewish and Palestinian creators, Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti, also won the prizes for best director, best screenplay and best editing. The film -- in which most of the dialogue is in Arabic -- now becomes Israel's candidate for best foreign film in next year's Academy Awards.

The advance publicity accurately predicted that this week's U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian summit would fall short of great historical drama. Despite Barack Obama's efforts, his meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas would not be the denouement of successful diplomacy. Emotionally as well as physically, the get-together in New York on Tuesday would be half a world away from the unsolved conflict. Following updates on news sites would be an exercise in escapism, I concluded.

Instead, to stay real, I went to the movies. More specifically, I went to see Ajami. Like last year's Waltz With Bashir, it's an example of Israeli cinema's maturation as engaged art, harsh and sympathetic. Ajami focuses on Israel's Palestinian citizens, who are fated to live on both sides of the conflict. In the process, the film's Palestinian and Jewish co-directors blur the boundary between fiction and documentary.

The film is named for a neighborhood in the coastal city of Jaffa. Until 1948, Jaffa was the cultural center of Arab Palestine. When it was conquered by Jewish forces that year, all but a few thousand of the Arab residents fled. Jewish immigrants moved into abandoned houses, and Jaffa was annexed by the neighboring Jewish city of Tel Aviv. The remaining Palestinians became Israeli citizens and outsiders. Ajami, a mostly Arab neighborhood, has stayed poor and crime-ridden.

In the movie, most of the dialogue is in an Israeli dialect of Arabic, punctuated with Hebrew. Meanwhile, Jewish cops speak street Hebrew, with its admixture of Arabic. Ajami's alienated Palestinians refer to the police as "the government." The police cannot understand why the residents side with the criminals against them. For Palestinians from the occupied West Bank, however, Jaffa's Arabs are far too Israeli -- "worse than collaborators," as a character from Nablus says. The admixture of language reveals the entanglement of Palestinians and Israelis, and the divisions between Palestinians themselves.

Shuttling back and forth in time, the movie weaves together multiple plot lines. A young Muslim, Omar, must protect his family from a Bedouin clan after his uncle shoots one of its members. Expecting no protection from the government (in both meanings of the word), he turns to the traditional Arab arbitrator, a respected elder, who orders him to pay an impossible sum in blood money. Meanwhile, a Palestinian teen from Nablus sneaks into Jaffa to work illegally at a restaurant, hoping to pay for his mother's cancer treatment. Omar is caught in a doomed romance with Hadir, the daughter of a wealthy Christian Palestinian. Omar's friend Binj wants to move to Tel Aviv to live with his Jewish girlfriend. Dando, a Jewish cop with the thankless job of trying to clean up Ajami, learns that his missing brother has been murdered by Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank. A drug deal gone bad gradually ties together the disparate stories, the evil metastasizing from one character to another with deadly results.

For all the characters, family is a refuge and a trap. Hadir, halfway between Jaffa tradition and a Tel Aviv illusion of self-fulfillment, defends her love for Omar by telling her father, "It's my life." She's mistaken. Not even Dando, the Jewish policeman, can escape the fate of family, which is the movie's subtle stand-in for tribe, for nationality. Family scenes, filmed with a hand-held camera, are shown in unblinking close-up.

The story around Ajami is also compelling. The movie about Palestinians and Jews not understanding each other is the product of seven years of shared work by Scandar Copti, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. Copti grew up in Jaffa. Together they wrote, directed and edited the film. Funding came from the government-backed Israel Film Fund, as well as foreign investors. Rather than use professional actors, Copti and Shani recruited residents of the neighborhood and actual police officers and put them through a year of acting workshops before starting to shoot. The dialogue was improvised, taken from the actors' lives. According to one account of the filming, only three of the dozen or so participants in the clan-arbitration scene knew that it was fictional.

The result is extreme realism and equal sympathy for the Palestinian and Jewish characters. On screen, Ajami shows people unable to take control of their lives, doomed to violence. Yet it was created by people who chose to cooperate and bridge the ethnic divide. Without turning into allegory, the film presents the most basic alternatives facing Palestinians and Israelis.

Ajami received a special mention from the Camera d'Or jury at Cannes and won the prize for best feature film at this year's Jerusalem Film Festival. It was also screened at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. Though it was not officially part of the latter festival's City to City spotlight on Tel Aviv, its participation highlights the absurdity of the "Toronto Declaration" protesting the focus on Israeli cinema. Published in early September, signed by top actors and filmmakers including Viggo Mortensen, Ken Loach, and Danny Glover, the declaration claimed that the festival had made itself "complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine." It also faulted the City to City program for leaving out Palestinian filmmakers and ignoring Jaffa's history.

The letter set off a furious debate. Other actors, including Jerry Seinfeld and Sacha Baron Cohen, published a statement that blasted "blacklisting" Israeli films. J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby, defended the festival, while criticizing a statement by the festival's co-director that labeled Tel Aviv "contested ground."

In fact, showcasing Tel Aviv hardly made the Toronto festival a "celebration of occupation," as the declaration called it. The City to City list included another film about Jaffa's fault lines. The festival as a whole featured the Israeli-made Lebanon, a new feature on Israel's disastrous invasion of that country in 1982. And, of course, there was Ajami. This is not the usual meaning of "propaganda." Rather, it's a demonstration of how art can raise the most difficult questions in a society. In Ajami, directors Copti and Shani succeeded in showing people trapped in tribal allegiances. I came home moved by their cooperation, by their own ability to break out of the tragedy they had shown. I checked the news from the summit in New York and wished for leaders with equal courage.

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