Oscar-nominated Director Examines Israeli Violence and Sexuality in New Trilogy

'Ajami' director Yaron Shani's new trilogy creates an experience that is as intriguing as it is moving

Centering around a story about three women who are each on the verge of a nervous breakdown, for various reasons, the last movie, "Reborn," was the big winner at the 2019 Haifa Film Festival.
Nitzan Lotem / Shai Skiff

Ten years after the box-office success of the rough-hewn crime drama "Ajami," which garnered praise around the world and a nomination for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards in 2010, director Yaron Shani has returned to the big screen with a new movie. Shani and his "Ajami" co-director, Palestinian Scandar Copti, were not awarded the coveted statuette and did not shatter Israel's dubious record: being the country with the most contenders for best foreign film without ever getting the prize. But the great success of their work has paved the way to another achievement, no less impressive.

Shani has now returned, delivering three well-placed and no-less-unnerving blows to his viewers’ underbellies. The three movies comprising his "Love Trilogy" premiered at international festivals, getting awards and critical acclaim, and proving that Shani, 46, is one of the most unique, original and interesting filmmakers currently at work in Israel.

During the decade of behind-the-scenes work that has elapsed since he made "Ajami" – which spotlighted Jewish-Arab tensions in the Jaffa neighborhood of that name – Shani uses the same unconventional method he implemented there: casting people that have never studied acting and who get into the characters they depict after long months of rehearsals, simulations and role playing.

Yaron Shani. 'The movie’s great success came from the street – people just streamed into the theaters'
Eric Sultan

"Stripped," the first part of the trilogy, was screened at the 2018 Venice Film Festival and tells the story of a young female writer whose life is thrown off-kilter after she starts to experience visions of being raped. For her portrayal of the protagonist, Lilav Sivan received the best actress award at the 2018 Haifa Film Festival; the film was also nominated for four Ophir Awards, the Israeli Oscars.

"Chained," the second film in the trilogy – about a respected police officer whose career collapses along with his private life – premiered at the last Berlin Film Festival. It won three awards last year at the Jerusalem Film Festival (best film, audience favorite and best actor), as well as two Ophirs: one for director Shani and one for best male actor, Eran Naim.

Centering around a story about three women who are each on the verge of a nervous breakdown, for various reasons, the last movie, "Reborn," was the big winner at the 2019 Haifa Film Festival, with three awards: best film (it tied with Oren Gerner’s "Africa"), best actress – shared by the three protagonists Stav Almagor, Ori Shani and Leah Tonic – and best cinematography in a feature film, awarded to Nizan Lotem and Shai Skiff.

"Stripped," the first part of the trilogy, tells the story of a young female writer whose life is thrown off-kilter after she starts to experience visions of being raped.
Nitzan Lotem / Shai Skiff

"Chained" is the first film in the trilogy to be screened locally to the public (it's currently being shown in the Tel Aviv area). As with the majority of those appearing in Shani's films, Eran Naim, who portrays the main protagonist and also appeared in "Ajami" and "Stripped," is not a professional actor. As often happens in this director's works, reality leaks into the movies, blurring boundaries between fact and fiction.

“Eran was a devoted and well-respected policeman for 15 years,” relates Shani. “He ended up leaving the police under difficult circumstances and his whole world crumbled. He lost all control over his life.” The "difficult circumstances" he refers to involved an attack on a demonstrator protesting Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which led to Naim being fired from the force.

When Shani first set out, he tells Haaretz, he wasn’t planning to make a trilogy, but his modus operandi demands keeping an open mind and allowing for changes, letting the characters that crystallize ahead of the actual shooting impact the work.

At the 2019 festival in Haifa, where all three films were screened for the first time in Israel, one could feel their cumulative impact. "Love Trilogy" proved to be a scalpel, cutting into the flesh of intimate, sensitive issues in Israeli society and in general, among them sexual assault, domestic violence, prostitution, the obsession with having children and so on. The knife is then pulled out, leaving behind a mixture of pain and softness, cruelty and compassion, despair and hope.

'Ajami' co-director, Palestinian Scandar Copti.
REUTERS

Each of the three films can stand on its own, but when you watch all of them in succession, the connections between them forge a fascinating dimension of meaning and interest. Shani's trilogy meets the exquisitely evasive challenge of creating a cinematic experience that is as intriguing as it is moving, succeeding in being authentic and convincing to the point where viewers emerging from the hall have no choice but to ponder that complex, wonderful and horrific thing that is life itself.

'Delusional guys'

While "Ajami" ended up being a commercial and critical success, at first almost no one believed in it, Shani recalls: “Other than the Israel Film Foundation, no one wanted to support the film or to screen or distribute it. The movie’s great success came from the street – people just streamed into the theaters. Israelis who would never go see a movie in Arabic went in large numbers to see it, and Arabs who would never go to an Israeli film went to see it. It was a pirated best-seller, even reaching Arab countries, since it has a sincerity that some professionals failed to identify. I remember that when we filmed it, colleagues in our business said that there were these two delusional guys heading for a flop since we didn’t understand a thing. That’s how the industry talked about us.”

Speaking before the announcement last week of the 2020 Academy Awards nominees (his trilogy did not make it onto the shortlist for best international feature film), Shani talks about the impact participation in festivals and awards ceremonies has on filmmakers.

“In some way, this is critical to the ability of a creative artist to make a living doing art. This whole project, for example, brought me and the two wonderful producers who worked with me to our knees, financially. Thus, we need the recognition in order to bring food to our family's table. Look, at the Cannes Festival when you see a director whose film is in the official competition climbing the stairs and standing on the red carpet – sometimes it’s an indigent artist who rented his tuxedo for the occasion. He emerges from the limousine that picked him up just 300 meters away, with all the photographers around him and the crazy glitz – and returns home later thinking he’s God. In many ways, such an experience is a death sentence for the creative spirit, since values like sincerity and humility are tossed out along the way.”

So during this whole journey did you feel conflicted, that you needed to fight in order not to be swept up in that whole game?

“Yes, and it’s very hard. You attend the fancy ball and because you’re there everyone wants to hear what you have to say, and you supposedly become important. The whole ceremony is built around that and it’s hard to resist it.”

A scene from 'Chained,' the second film in the trilogy – about a respected police officer whose career collapses along with his private life.
Nitzan Lotem / Shai Skiff

What did you think of the day before the Oscar ceremony in 2010, when Copti said that he did not represent Israel – a statement that provoked a furor here?

“As an artist who strives to explore the human soul, I can’t be judgmental. I have to be careful not to insert my personal opinions into the frame, but to give the person cooperating with me a chance to be completely himself, to tell his own truth. It was therefore important for me to work with Scandar, who has a firm Palestinian-national viewpoint, having grown up in a completely different world than me. The path to the big truth passes through a sincere dialogue. The striving for authenticity comes from the belief in sincerity as the supreme value. A narrow political dialogue is something I have to leave outside my observing eye. There were no politics in 'Ajami' either.”

What do you mean? The minute you show Arabs and Jews together on the screen, it’s political.

“The question is how you define politics. The politics of 'Ajami' took the form of love for a human being as a human being. The same goes for 'Chained.' People who make mistakes do things that, when seen from the side, could be judged harshly. But when we walk in someone else’s shoes, we see how complex things are. That’s the politics of 'Ajami,' and I was sorry that people dealt in narrow and ugly politics instead of seeing human beings and the complexities that were under the surface.”

Copti has not been living in Israel for several years; he currently resides in Abu Dhabi, where he teaches film. At the time of this writing, however, he had just arrived here for a few months, to shoot a new movie. Working with Shani, he tells Haaretz, demanded a very high level of trust.

“We started meeting and getting to know each other and became best friends," Copti says. "We were both single so we spent a lot of time together, talking about social issues and starting to work on stories that we’d collected. It required a lot of trust, working on a movie like this, synchronizing conflicting world views. There were things Yaron didn’t know about, and there were things I didn’t know about. It started building up like that, slowly, organically. We wanted to talk about things that weren’t talked about – about a painful and divided reality.”

Yaron Shani. 'I was sorry that people dealt in narrow and ugly politics instead of seeing human beings and the complexities that were under the surface'
Eric Sultan

The fuss evoked by his statement before the Oscars ceremony 10 years ago pained him, mainly because of its superficial coverage in the media, adds Copti: “I’m not a provocateur by nature, I’m very honest and clear as to my identity. I’m happy with who I am. I’ve always been Palestinian and at that time I was no longer in Israel. I’d started working overseas, in Qatar. But I know what the media reported, something sensational; they did whatever they did with that.

Fortunately, Yaron is mature enough, open and wise enough to understand that this was something that could have happened. We both regretted that people didn’t stop and wonder: These guys are telling a painful story, and then the director said what he said. Let’s see how that relates to the reality they presented on screen. Let’s open a debate about this topic. It’s a shame that this is how things work.”

Copti says he will make his next film using the same method he and Shani used in "Ajami." Indeed, seeing his former partner's trilogy has reaffirmed the power of that method.

“The emotion and power there are things I haven’t seen in films up to now,” he observes. “Yaron can do what every filmmaker dreams about – taking a particular state of consciousness and translating it into action. To me, he’s a filmmaker with vision, reinventing the wheel each time, a nonconformist.”