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Israeli-Arab film 'Ajami' spotlights tough, gentrifying Jaffa

The makers of the Israeli-Arab film 'Ajami,' which was nominated for an Oscar, saw their depiction of drug dealing and poverty in Jaffa collide with reality earlier this week, when two of them were arrested.

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Although he's a friend of filmmaker Scander Copti, Sami Abu Shahadeh looks at "Ajami" with a critical eye. Mr. Jabali, a Jaffa native who's doing a doctoral thesis on the city's history at Tel Aviv University, notes that the film starts in the present day and doesn't give any background as to how Ajami got to be a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood. He attributes this to the upheaval of 1948, the years of Israel's creation during which, he says, 97 percent of Jaffa's residents were expelled or fled.

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Previously, he says, Jaffa was considered the Arab cultural center of British Mandatory Palestine. Now, it was reduced to a ghetto – and many lost access to property they'd owned before the war.

"One of the problems with the movie is that there is no historical context to describe how Ajami got to be a neighborhood of drugs, poverty and crime," says Abu Shahadeh. "But they made this, initially, as a community project – to bring empowerment to the neighborhood itself. It was a small project with almost no budget and no serious actors. It was never planned to be big or definitive from the beginning, so they didn't take into consideration all the implications of the movie."

For example, he says, much attention has been paid to the fact that the movie was co-written and direction by Copti and Yaron Shani, a Jewish Israeli, and there's been some backlash among the Arab community over the image that portrays.

"The movie serves Israel politically, particularly at a time of all the criticism over Gaza, because Israel couldn't hope for a better symbol of there being co-existence and democracy here than to have a film like this," Abu Shahadeh says.

Others are upset that the film portrays a negative image of Jaffa, as if it is, first and last, a drug-infested shooting gallery. That portrait hardly speaks to the fact that real estate is now so expensive in Jaffa that yuppie Tel Aviv-types are beating down the doors to buy apartments there.

"It's a film, not a PR campaign," says Mohammed Jabali, a poet and language teacher busy writing the afternoon away at Yafa, a popular café and bookstore along Jaffa's main street, one that evinces the gentrification and economic revival that's also part of the story. "Everyone is obsessed with the image this gives. But one should see it as a movie with a narrative and artistic value," says Jabali. "At the same time, it's the first film that's dealt with daily life here as it really is, without actually being about 'the conflict,'" he says.

Perhaps one of the reasons that the film feels so real is that the directors choose average people from the community, not professional actors. They were given a short acting course. And when it came time for action, they gave the actors scenarios, but not an exact script.

"Scander wanted us to act as we would in normal life," says Amal Abu Ramadan, a schoolteacher who had a role in the film. Since she and others in her family have had many run-ins with the police, she says, that wasn't difficult at all. "I think one of the great things is that the film exposed an international audience to things they haven't heard about, and which we all really need to understand better."

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