'Ajami' casts harsh light on Israel's other Arab conflict

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JAFFA: In the mixed neighborhood of the Israeli film Ajami, Jews and Arabs rub shoulders on the same quiet, leafy streets, never knowing when someone is going to draw a knife.

The film, the third Israeli production to be nominated for an Academy Award in as many years, offers a rare look at the country s Arab minority, a fifth of the population often overshadowed by the larger Middle East conflict.

Most Israelis don t know what s going on in places like Ajami. Most of their attention is drawn to the big conflict with the Palestinians who live outside Israel, said Yaron Shani, 37, the Israeli co-director of the film.

The film, named for the Jaffa neighborhood just south of Tel Aviv where it takes place, follows several characters fiercely divided by clan, religion and ethnicity as they are fatefully thrown together in Ajami s criminal underworld.

It shows you how deep the difference is, how segregated this reality is. And when you live in this reality, it s not surprising that every once in a while you see an outburst of horrifying violence, Shani said.

There is the main character Omar, an Israeli Arab teenager who peddles drugs to try to pay off a blood feud with a Bedouin family after they try to kill him but mistakenly guns down a neighbor in broad daylight.

And Malek, a 16-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank who sneaks into Israel illegally to earn money to pay for life-saving surgery for his mother, who is in an Israeli hospital.

Chance sets them on a collision course with Dando, an Israeli undercover cop in search of his vanished brother, with the tragic course of events narrated by Nasri, Omar s little brother.

Here the Middle East conflict springs, not from an age-old dispute over territory, but an infectious tribalism bred by seething distrust and the need to defend boundaries – ethnic, religious and familial – at all costs.

Shani and Israeli Arab co-director Scandar Copti, 34, cast local residents instead of professional actors in all the roles and provided them with loose scenarios instead of scripts.

They had the freedom to be themselves. The scenes were totally spontaneous, Shani said.

During one scene Dando and other undercover cops go to arrest a drug dealer and are surprised when several of his friends rush out to protect him. Shani said the crew had to step in to break up the scuffle as things got out of hand.

I felt like I was on the job … I didn t act, said Eran Naim, 39, who was cast as Dando after working as an Israeli policeman for 16 years.

Ajami is the third Israeli film in a row to be nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film, after Beaufort (2007) and the animated Waltz With Bashir (2008), both war movies dealing with Israel s painful 1982-2000 occupation of southern Lebanon.

We aren t all gangsters

The three are part of a string of international successes for Israeli cinema, including the critically-acclaimed The Band s Visit (2007) and Lebanon (2009) which took the top prize at the Venice Film Festival.

The phenomenon of Israeli cinema is all over the place, said Eitan Green, a director and film professor at Tel Aviv University, who links the rise in part to an increase in government subsidies for films in the past 10 years.

Although the perception of Israel around the world is not that sympathetic now, you can make almost any kind of movie here, he said, including works that are deeply critical of the Jewish state and its policies.

Ironically, while Ajami has been a hit in Israel, many Arab residents of the real-life Ajami have been less thrilled with it.

It only shows one side of the coin, said Samir Awad, a hardware store owner who lives on the street where one of the scenes was filmed. We aren t all gangsters. We have doctors, lawyers, even judges.

Residents, however, do accuse Israeli police of heavy-handed treatment and racial profiling, and last month two of director Copti s brothers were briefly detained after an altercation with police.

Israel s 1.5 million Arab citizens, the descendants of Palestinians who remained in the Jewish state after the 1948 Middle East war that followed its creation, today make up 20 percent of the population.

But they accounted for 60 percent of murder victims in 2009, according to government figures.

And a study carried out by Israel s parliament found that Arabs make up 41 percent of murder suspects and 36 percent of both assault and robbery suspects, a reflection of poverty and frustration rampant in their communities.

Shahir Kabaha, 25, who plays the main character Omar and has lived in the area his whole life, said the film conveys the fragile nature of the relative calm in Israel s mixed neighborhoods.

Everyone here lives a normal life, but at any moment something can happen that changes everything, he said.

I ve seen weapons drawn right in front of me. I ve seen drugs with my own eyes and I ve seen people die with my own eyes, people who had nothing to do with anything.

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