It's hard to imagine a more improbable success story: Two guys from different religions with no moviemaking experience decide to make a film about a crime-ridden neighborhood. They have no money and decide to do the entire film with nonprofessional actors who will improvise their dialogue (based on a story written by the two) in two languages (Arabic and Hebrew). They come up with a complicated story line, multiple characters, and choose to tell the story in a nonchronological fashion. It takes so long to make and uses up so much of their time and resources that they both have to live with relatives while they work on it.
And then, when they finish it, it wins prizes and praise all over the world. The film gets multiple distribution deals, including in 12 European markets and the US.
If you haven't already heard, this is the story of the making of the film, Ajami, and of its directors, Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, and Scandar Copti, an Israeli-Arab Christian (who also appears in a key role, looking like a hipster with his dark goatee). Perhaps the most improbable part of this whole adventure is that the two have managed to stay friends throughout, in spite of pressures that have torn apart many partnerships. In fact, the experience has deepened their friendship, and each spent a sizable portion of his interview with me singing his codirector's praises.
"To make a movie on such sensitive subjects" - including crime, Arab-Jewish relations and tensions within different sectors of the Arab community - "you need to have two directors, one from each community," explains Shani, 36. "We needed to stand behind every decision together... It got to be such a close partnership where we knew each other so well. We worked together for seven years and talked about everything together. It got to be so we would know what the other would say before he opened his mouth."
"We kept each other going," agrees Copti.
The film, which won a Special Mention in the Camera d'Or section of the Cannes Film Festival and the Wolgin Award at this summer's Jerusalem Film Festival (beating out such competition as Lebanon, which took the top prize at the Venice Festival last month), also won the Ophir Award for Best Picture last week. This means it will be Israel's official selection for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and may get one of the five nominee slots. So, with just a little more luck, it could end up being Israel's first Oscar winner (a possibility that seems tantalizingly real since for the last two years Israeli films have been nominated for this Oscar).
You might assume that two young men who have gone through such an emotionally fraught process and remained close were childhood friends, maybe neighbors from the same block.
This isn't the case, though. The two met eight years ago when Shani ran the International Student Film Festival at Tel Aviv University. Shani, a film fanatic, confounded his family when, after studying at Haifa's prestigious, academically demanding Reali School, he decided to walk away from a future in hi-tech or the sciences and studied film at TAU. He had made some films as a student and some on his own, but nothing as ambitious as Ajami. He did have a script about interlocking stories set in Tel Aviv. The film festival included a project to give filmmakers in Jaffa access to filmmaking equipment, and through that he met Copti.
Copti, who also had a technical background - he studied mechanical engineering at the Technion - grew up in Jaffa and knew the neighborhoods there well. There was no film or theater in his background either: His grandfather owns the restaurant that appears in the film, his father is a carpenter (who worked on sets and has a small role) and his mother is the principal of the Democratic School in Jaffa. Copti loved movies, though, and when Shani approached him with the idea of collaborating on a script about Jaffa, he jumped at the chance.
BEING YOUNG, ambitious, idealistic, strongly influenced by Italian Neo-Realism and maybe just a little crazy, they decided to have the actors improvise all their dialogue. They sent their principal cast to workshops on theater and improv and told each actor separately what was to happen in the scene, then shot with two cameras (an unusual expense in a low-budget film). They ended up with 80 hours of film that needed to be cut down to two (typically, filmmakers shoot 15 to 20 hours, less on small-scale productions).
But they wouldn't have done it any other way. "You feel that you're seeing reality, not a performance," says Copti, and reviewers have agreed. Jay Weissberg, reviewing the film for Variety, wrote: "Rarely has the tinderbox nature of the Middle East been so accurately lensed, on such an intimate scale, as in Scandar Copti's and Yaron Shani's powerful Ajami." Local reviewers have been equally laudatory.
With 20-20 hindsight, it's easy to see how this movie would be a success, but it was difficult for the directors to get financing. Shani says they eventually got about 40 percent from the Israel Film Fund and 60% from German producers. Copti and Shani, who had hoped for more local funding, speculate that the subject matter of the film, which is about a large group of mainly Arab characters who are brought together by crime in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, may have been too gritty to attract Israelis.
But it fascinated the filmmakers. For Shani, in particular, writing and making the film introduced him to a new world: "The stories in the film are based on true stories. There's so much drama and pain, so many stories of survival, of segregation and conflict between different groups. I knew these stories a little from the newspapers, but I was shocked when I heard the details."
He mentions the incident in which one of the main characters, Omar, a young man whose family has become embroiled in a feud with another family, goes to Abu Elias, a local fixer, to try to end the conflict. Abu Elias agrees to help, but brokers a deal in which Omar has to pay an exorbitant fee as compensation, money his family can only dream of, which spurs Omar to start dealing drugs. Fixers like Abu Elias, says Shani, are "an alternative social framework completely disconnected from the legal framework of the state. It makes me think how it's sad how we live, not only Jews and Arabs, but all of us live in our bubbles that no one knows anything else about: secular and religious, rich and poor."
The film was a learning experience for Shani in another way. "When we started, I only knew about four words of Arabic," he says. "It's a beautiful language. All Israelis should learn it. It was a challenge to get from where I was when we started to where I could hear an improvised scene and understand it."
Shani, who recently returned from presenting the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, says he didn't have any problem due to the calls for a boycott by industry heavyweights (including Jane Fonda, who later recanted, Danny Glover and Viggo Mortensen). The reason for their boycotting the festival was a program devoted to films set in Tel Aviv to commemorate the city's centennial. You might think this would put pressure on the director of a film set in Jaffa, but Shani says the opposite was true. "Other than people asking me how I felt about the boycott, I didn't feel it at all. It might have had a reverse effect, since our screenings sold out," he says.
Are they kicking back now and savoring their success? Not exactly. It seems they haven't quite absorbed what's happening yet. Their lives are a whirl of awards ceremonies, meetings with distributors and trips to film festivals - the film is scheduled to travel to another 20 or so, including in Belgium and India. "We're still on a hysterical adrenaline rush from it all," says Copti. "This is more than I dreamed of in my wildest dreams."
"The whole process was very pure and true," says Shani, who moved in with his wife's family while making the film and became a father last year. "It was like learning guitar or studying yoga or something. It was so important we put everything else in our lives aside to make it."