Hours before Ajami competed for the best foreign film Oscar at the Academy Awards on Sunday, co-director Scandar Copti said he doesn’t represent Israel and the film is only “technically” Israeli.
“I’m not the Israel team. I don’t represent Israel,” Copti, an Arab resident of Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood where the movie is set, told Channel 2.
Copti said the movie’s status was “a very technical issue,” arguing that it’s only called an Israeli film because money to make it came from Israel.
Ajami revolves around the lives of residents and police, both Arabs and Jews, in the rough-and-tumble predominantly Arab neighborhood. The dialogue is in Hebrew and Arabic peppered with Hebrew. The production, which received NIS 2 million in state funds, cast only non-professional actors from the area, all of whom were Israeli citizens.
It is the first Israeli film shot predominately in Arabic to be nominated for the best foreign film Oscar, and the third Israeli movie in three years to be nominated.
Copti added, “You have an Israeli director and a Palestinian director; you have Israeli actors and Palestinian actors. The movie represents Israel, but I don’t; I can’t represent a country that doesn’t represent me.”
Copti’s co-director, Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, was interviewed along with Copti and took issue with his statement, saying Ajami “is an Israeli movie, it takes place in Israel, it speaks Israeli, it deals with problems in Israel.”
Shani said the issue of whom the film represents “deals with matters of perspective and political problems we must solve.”
Talia Kleinhendler, who produced Ajami along with Mosh Danon, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday that she and the rest of the film’s delegation in Los Angeles had heard about the controversy back in Israel in the wake of Copti’s statements, and had been fielding calls about the issue all day long.
Kleinhendler said she and the rest of the production team see Ajami as an Israeli film and that “the most important thing is the film itself and the message it gives about seeing the world through the eyes of the other.”
She said she understands why politicians responded to Copti’s statement, but that they should try to understand where his feeling that Israel doesn’t represent him comes from. At the end of the day, “the movie speaks for itself, and the people who love it will continue to love it,” she said.
Daniel Litani of the Israel Film Fund took issue with Copti’s words on Sunday, saying that the fund absolutely believes the movie represents Israel, and will be cheering for it to win on Sunday night.
“The fund is treating this film as an Israeli film all the way through, one that received funding from an Israeli government agency,” he said.
Litani said the fund doesn’t differentiate at all between movies made by Jews and those made by Arabs. “Our only concern is the artistic value of a film and nothing else.”
MKs blasted Copti’s statements Sunday, with Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat (Likud) telling Army Radio that “without the support of the state, Copti wouldn’t be walking down the red carpet tonight.”
Livnat added, “It’s sad that a director who was supported by the state decides to alienate those who allowed him to create and express himself.”
Habayit Hayehudi chairman Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz called on Livnat to probe how the makers of Ajami received state funding to make the movie in the first place.
“The person who made this movie, through the help of the State of Israel, is set to wrap himself in the flag of Hamas” on the victory podium, Herschkowitz said. If Ajami does win, it will be a “Pyrrhic victory for Israel.”
MK Alex Miller (Israel Beiteinu) criticized Copti “for feeling free to wave around the shekels that the state gave him to make the movie, while he isn’t willing to wave its flag.”
Miller called on Copti to apologize for his remarks “and not come knocking on government doors in further requests to get money for his movies.”
Copti’s statements didn’t quell the enthusiasm for Ajami at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles, which will be hosting an Oscar watch party for Israeli media personnel at the X bar at the Century Plaza Hotel. A spokesman for the consulate said they are “definitely” pulling for the film to bring home the statuette and will be watching the ceremony closely.
Ajami’s Oscar night comes a day after around 300 activists and residents of the neighborhood held a demonstration against what they said was growing police brutality in Jaffa.
Kamal Agbaria, chairman of the Ajami neighborhood committee, said the march, from the clock tower in Jaffa to the police station on Salameh Street, was held “against police violence that has worsened recently.”
Agbaria said Ajami residents were not against the police, the majority of whom he said were not racist, but that “we cannot accept the degrading behavior and racism that some police show toward the Arab population.”
He added that activists will continue to hold talks with police to build understanding and cooperation between police and residents, who he said want the police to help protect them in their neighborhoods.
On February 6, police arrested director Scandar Copti’s brothers, Tony and Jiras Copti, after they allegedly assaulted policemen. The two denied they assaulted police and said they were held in custody for eight hours and beaten by police before being released without charges. Tony Copti had a bit part in, and worked as a production manager for, the film.
In the weeks since Ajami was nominated, many residents of the neighborhood have expressed mixed feelings about the movie’s accolades, with their hometown pride laced with disappointment at the largely grim portrayal of the area.
That sentiment was echoed on Sunday by one Ajami resident, Naaman, the
cashier at a kiosk off the neighborhood’s Yefet Street, who said that
while he enjoyed the movie on a cinematic level, “It didn’t show any of
the good things about Jaffa, only the bad things.”
Naaman, 35, also expressed understanding of Copti’s statement on not
representing Israel, saying that though he’s a citizen and from Israel,
he “couldn’t live anywhere but Jaffa. It’s who I am. You have to
understand the attachment people from Jaffa have to the city. If I do
something, it reflects on Jaffa; but if a Jew from Haifa does
something, nobody says it reflects on Haifa. This is how it is;
everything we do represents Jaffa, not Israel.”