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Doc X Narrative: “Ajami”

February 16, 2010 Leave a comment

My first two tweets coming out of seeing “Ajami“, the Oscar-nominated Arab-Israeli film, praised its rare, “portrayal of Arab & Israeli male aggression AND vulnerability” as well as the decentered, interweaving narrative structure. The more I’ve thought about the film (and seen it again), the more I’ve come to appreciate the way that the 1st time directors, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, made such portrayals possible through their brave fusion of documentary and narrative forms. To begin with, they shot most of the film on location in the rough neighborhood of Ajami, in the city of Jaffa, after which the film is named. Those two decisions alone, location and title, ground the film in an environment that actually exists and call it by its name. This removes any doubt about where we are and how constructed the story is going to be. It’s as if the directors are saying, from the outset, “This is not a true story but it might as well be.”

With their world already set, Copti and Shani chose to cast mostly non-professional actors from the neighborhood of Ajami. This is a hugely ballsy move, especially for first-time directors, but it pays off in spades as the characters in the film consistently behave and speak in ways that are not at all ‘larger than life’ but rather completely life-like. The directors spent a year in workshops with the cast, placing them in dramatic situations and encouraging them to act exactly as they would in real life, using language that they would use in real life.  For the film itself, they often worked without a script or without telling the actors what was going to happen next, so as to elicit the most pure, gut reactions. That is exactly what they got and it makes for some of the most gripping emotional performances I’ve ever seen on the big screen.

Naturally, an authentic location and authentic neighborhood cast call for an authentic shooting style, which “Ajami” delivers through the lensing of Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov. The roving, handheld style places the viewer squarely in the middle of the action, never quite certain what’s coming next or from which direction. Mr. Yaacov is an excellent student of the cinema-verité school and takes it to another level, becoming almost an extension of the raw, unpredictable action of the characters.

But perhaps the most impressive (or, at least, notable) meta-narrative operating within “Ajami” is that of the film’s creators, Copti and Shani, whose own collaboration creates an aura of hope around an otherwise tragic tale. Copti, an Arab Christian who was raised in the Ajami neighborhood and followed in his father’s footsteps to become an engineer, discovered a passion for filmmaking when a friend asked him to collaborate on a short film about their neighborhood. He later met Shani, an Israeli Jew, who had attended film school in Tel Aviv and ran a student film festival, for which he encouraged local youths to make films about their environment. The two found in eachother a creative soul mate and embarked on writing the screenplay that would become “Ajami“. They worked on the project for four years, while holding down day jobs, and eventually cobbled together financing from German and French film finance companies, as well as a grant from the Israeli Film Fund, just enough to shoot for 3 weeks.

When the film premiered at the Jerusalem Film Festival last summer, it brought down the house and was immediately hailed as the film of the year, which it won (as well as Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Editing) at the Israeli version of the Oscars, the Ophir Awards. It has since been nominated for Best Foreign Film for the upcoming Academy Awards.

I’ll resist the urge to wax political about the lessons that can be drawn from the success of this Arab-Israeli, Christian-Jewish, Euro-Israeli collaboration. Suffice it to say that such lessons are abundant, but not nearly as significant, perhaps, as the artistic triumph that was achieved by the brave co-directors. On second thought, “artistic triumph” is far too lofty a description of what they did. Instead, I’d like to qualify their triumph as one of truth and honesty in storytelling. Whether documentary or fiction, scripted or improvised, the boundaries of filmmaking in the Imagination Age are not only expanded by advancements in technology (read: “Avatar”) but, maybe more so, by the filmmakers themselves who are willing to forego the artifices of cinema and lay bare the raw humanity of everyday life on film. For me, this was the true power of “Ajami“, the willful blurring of that antiquated line between art and reality.

Watch the trailer and then go see the film.

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