The Ajami effect
"It was nice, but most of the time we were outside, smoking cigarettes. It was an amazing show, the kind the Americans know how to put on. Now we're waiting for the car to come and pick us up, so we can go and meet our friends," said Scandar Copti, the director of "Ajami," on Monday morning, a few minutes after the end of the Oscar ceremony in which the Argentinean movie "El Secreto de sus ojos" (The Secret in Their Eyes) beat "Ajami" for the best foreign language film award.
Copti made it clear that he has no regrets about his remarks on Channel 2 news that he does not represent the State of Israel and cannot represent a state that does not represent him. "It's not a matter of regretting or not regretting what I said," he says. "It's what I feel, and I'll keep on saying it again and again in every language until the reality changes. It doesn't depend on me but on the state. Until the reality in Israel changes and it will be possible to live in coexistence, I will keep feeling this way, as will an entire public."
Some people, Copti continues, reacted "with shock and anger, instead of looking into why a given person, or a whole national minority, feels this way. These are things that I said in the film as well. Anyone leaving this film thinking that what they saw was a few dramatic scenes and that's all, apparently didn't really grasp what they saw and didn't think through to the end why these things happen."
Surrounded by hundreds of media and film industry people who flocked to the area adjacent to the Kodak Theater, where the Oscar ceremony took place, Copti said he is glad for the opportunity he had to make this film: "I am glad for those who liked it and for the fund that believed in it. It's not trivial, because after all not everyone has a chance to make the film he wants to make, not everyone is that lucky. People's reactions to the film are most important to me. For example, a woman leaving a showing of the film comes up to me and hugs me, and tells me, 'You don't know how you touched me, all the time I was thinking that I'm the only one who feels this way, and suddenly in the film I saw that there are other people who feel the same way I do.'
"And also the whole process of our work on the film, the fact that this was working with a community, that all of Jaffa mobilized on behalf of this film. We received vehicles for free, locations for free, many people helped us. It's the pride of all Jaffa. And even though this ceremony is not the most important thing in the world, everyone gathered tonight to watch it together with us. The fact that we managed to get an Israeli audience to see the film and identify with Palestinians is something huge. About 200,000 people have already seen the film in Israel, and they liked it, identified with the Palestinian characters and finally saw them as human beings, after many years of dehumanization. People come away from the film with questions, and their experience doesn't end the moment the screening is over."
Copti and his partner in directing "Ajami," Yaron Shani, along with co-producers Talia Kleinhendler and Moshe Danon, were in the hall where the award ceremony took place. The eight actors who accompanied them, however, watched the ceremony live at an event organized by the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles.
"There was tension and in the end I felt sad, not because we didn't win, but for Yaron and Scandar," says Nisrine Rihan Siksik, who plays the role of Omar's mother in the film.
"I wanted them to win and enjoy, because they did amazing work and they deserve all good things in this world. Suddenly everyone knows that Ajami is a neighborhood in Jaffa, in Israel, and understands that this whole situation of Jews and Arabs living together is sensitive. Before we came here, we knew that we're coming mainly to travel and enjoy visiting Los Angeles, more than to win an Oscar and wait for the statuette. Whether or not we would win, we have already won no matter what."
Siksik adds that she was surprised by the reactions to Copti's comment: "Even if Scandar said that, I don't understand what's happening. Each one of us has his opinion; let him say what he feels. After all, the conflict exists. I think it shows that we don't have real democracy that allows everyone to say what he wants. He said a few words and suddenly he's turned into a terrorist and persona non grata in Israel."
Katri Schory, the head of the Israel Film Fund, which provided support to "Ajami," says the fact that this is the third successive year that an Israeli film has competed for the Oscar impresses film industry people in Hollywood.
"Many talk here about the dramatic revolution in Israeli film and about the power and intensity of Israeli films," says Schory. "We all know where we were a few years ago, and now Israeli film has positioned itself. It can affect Israeli film, not in terms of investments, because independent American film is in a terrible situation, but in terms of sales and distribution. More distributors are interested in Israeli films, more television stations are purchasing Israeli films, and in this respect there is certainly change."