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.

Mohammed Babay/AP
Israeli police officers detain Tony Copti, back left, and his brother Jiriass Copti, center, in Jaffa, Israel on February 6. The brothers third bother Scandar Copti, co-produced Oscar nominated "Ajami," which depicts the brutal life of drugs, violence and poverty in Jaffa, a mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood near Tel Aviv.

The film "Ajami" was already getting a fair amount of press after being nominated earlier this month for an Oscar in the "Best Foreign Language Film" category.

But the film and the violent, crime-ridden neighborhood it portrays just became an even hotter topic after two brothers of filmmaker Scander Copti – one of whom was also in the film and served as his production manager – were arrested following a run-in with the police. The brothers, Tony Copti and Jieres Copti, who say they were beaten and mistreated by the police during their arrest over a week ago, filed a complaint against the Israeli police on Monday, charging brutality.

"We have photos of how the police treated us when they arrested us, but it was only after they took us to the police station that they really started to beat us," says Tony Copti, who acted in the film and served as its production manager.

The Tel Aviv District Police issued a statement about the arrests: "This was an unusual incident of an assault on officers who arrived at a scene of a crime and were attacked by dozens of local residents who beat them and cursed them. Reasonable force was employed in order to keep the order and arrest suspects."

"We hope that they will investigate this and that justice will be done," Copti says. "This kind of thing happens a lot in Jaffa – there was a similar incident just two weeks ago. We had a big meeting of all the communities in Jaffa to talk about it. Everyday we have incidents with the police. We hope something will change."

Tensions between the Arab residents of Jaffa and the Israeli officers sent in to police them have been a factor of life in the Jewish state for many years. Several residents interviewed for this article – some of them actors in the film – say that police aggression towards them is an ongoing problem that "Ajami" only touches upon briefly.

But the strength of the film is that it doesn't try to portray a one-sided view of the tensions in which disempowered Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians are victims and the Israeli-Jews are the aggressors. Rather, the film shows the multi-layered conflict in a way that blurs lines of right and wrong, and shows the humanity of all its flawed, lovable characters.

For example, there is a teenage Palestinian from the West Bank who has smuggled himself into Jaffa illegally to work in a restaurant in the hope of making enough money to help save his ailing mother -- and inadvertently winds up in the middle of a drug deal gone wrong. And there is an Israeli cop who, having just lost his brother – a soldier who was abducted and killed outside of Nablus - cracks and shoots the young Palestinian he should have simply arrested.

The film also touches on the social complications of life for the approximately 20 percent of Israel's citizens who are "Israeli-Arabs," from forbidden romances between Jews and Arabs - as well as between Muslims and Christians – to blood feuds, which put innocent people in the line of fire just because of their family affiliation. But the overriding current of the films pulses with the lure of drugs: as a source of crime, as an economic outlet, as ultimately, a path toward destruction.

Missing context, says critic

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.

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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