What can we make of the Ajami controversy?

Controversy marred the image of a unified Israel many here hoped ‘Ajami’ would promote.

March 9, 2010 09:17
4 minute read.
'Ajami' directors Scandar Copti (left) and Yaron S

ajami directors 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Just before the Academy Awards ceremony, a figure in the Israeli media said he was concerned that, in light of statements by Scandar Copti, one of the co-directors of Ajami, the Israeli nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Copti was likely to get up on stage and make a speech that would be insulting to and embarrassing for Israel.

“That should be our big problem,” I told him. “That an Israeli film wins an Oscar and the director says something embarrassing.”

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As it turns out, that wasn’t our big problem. Ajami did not win the Oscar, which instead went to El Secret de Sus Ojos, an Argentine film by Juan Jose Campanella. Israel has never won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, despite being nominated nine times (including three times in as many years).

Every time Israel does not win this award, Israelis ask me the next day, “Why didn’t it win? Is it anti-Semitism?” And one day, when Israel does win (and it will eventually), the director (or directors) will get up and say something that will embarrass and annoy some Israelis. That’s an Oscar prediction I’ll bet money on.

But what can we make of this year’s controversy, which marred the image of a unified Israel many here hoped Ajami would promote, since it was co-directed by Copti, an Israeli-Arab Christian from Jaffa, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew from Haifa? Tensions have been brewing for the past month, since two of Copti’s brothers (among others) were arrested in Jaffa on what they say were unjust charges, then subjected to police brutality. The day before the Oscars, Jaffa residents held a demonstration to protest the police conduct, which received more publicity than any similar demonstration has in the recent past. But what got some Israelis particularly apprehensive were statements made by Scandar Copti while promoting the film before the Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles, notably this one: “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.”

Co-director Yaron Shani countered that statement by saying that Ajami “is an Israeli movie, it takes place in Israel, it speaks Israeli, it deals with problems in Israel.”

THAT THE film received a significant portion of its budget from the Israel Film Fund, a government fund, which has been promoting Ajami for months on its Website and elsewhere, has never been in dispute.  Copti is certainly correct in saying that the movie represents Israel. And while he may feel it does not represent him, in fact, it does. It represents the messy reality of his life in a complicated country, where many groups are thrown together in a geographically small area. There are conflicts among all the groups, and within all the groups: Between Jews and Arabs, Muslim Arabs and Christian Arabs, Israeli Arabs and West Bank Palestinians, West Bank Palestinians and Bedouin – and among all these groups and representatives of the Israeli government (and other authorities, both formal and informal), including, and often, the police.

These conflicts are the subject of the film Ajami, made with money from a government that Copti doesn’t feel he represents. I can sympathize with his anger over the treatment of his family and friends, but he made a choice and it cannot be undone. It can’t be clean to take money from a government and dirty to acknowledge what that money has bought. The success of the film has come with a great deal of attention to the Ajami neighborhood. Audiences all over the world (including Oscar voters  and the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, which awarded Ajami a Special Mention last spring) have become aware of the neighborhood and its complex reality since the release of the film. I’m sure there have been many complaints of police brutality in the Ajami neighborhood over the years, but due to the film, this recent one became front-page news. It’s hard not to see that as a victory of sorts.

Copti may be missing an opportunity to criticize his own government from the perspective of a citizen who represents a minority here. Whether he likes the way it feels or not, he has made his movie and through it, his voice is heard. When he speaks up, people do listen, as he has just learned, if he didn’t realize it earlier. And they listen because he is an Israeli and they care about what those who represent Israel have to say.

We haven’t heard the last of either Copti or Shani, who are just beginning their careers. In terms of the Oscars, let’s hope for better luck next year. And, for the record, the winning Argentine film is excellent. Ajami’s loss certainly has nothing to do with anti-Semitism or an anti-Israel sentiment. The voters simply preferred a different film. That’s show business.

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