Rejoicing in Jaffa

Something unusual took place Tuesday afternoon at the Yaffa Cafe in Jaffa. Dozens of people wandered around, embracing each other spontaneously. There were smiles all around. Television cameras and curious reporters circulated among the crowd, trying to get people to articulate what all the excitement was about.

It was actually symbolic that the cast and crew of the film "Ajami," who had been notified an hour earlier that the picture was one of the five finalists competing for the best foreign-language Academy Award, chose to congregate there: a combination cafe and bookstore, with books in Arabic and Hebrew, which has become a meeting place for those involved in everyday Jaffa life.

"We watched the live broadcast with friends," said Eran Naim, one of the film's actors, as he flashed an especially broad smile before a slew of reporters and television cameras. "When they announced 'Ajami,' we jumped on the sofa. I really hope it's still in one piece."

"There's a lot of excitement, butterflies in the stomach, we hoped for the announcement, but we didn't expect it," he continued. "We hope we will bring this honor to the State of Israel for the first time."

"And to Jaffa!" the other actors around him shouted with genuine pride.

Indeed, the amazing story of "Ajami" is one of the best things to occur in Jaffa recently - an exciting victory for many residents. Beyond that, this film can also be seen as an important lesson for local filmmakers and even flash a warning light to politicians, who are attempting to reduce film budgets and are willing to restrict creative freedom in order to have influence over the content.

Around eight years ago, Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti decided to do something daring. Even though this was the first full-length feature film they would direct, and on a relatively small budget, the two were determined to have the movie focus on residents of the area where the story takes place - people without any acting experience - and to prepare them for their roles in acting workshops.

"[The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] know that we did not have the slightest idea of what it means to act in front of a camera," says Nisrine Rihan, an Ajami resident and actor in the film. "They understood very well that we aren't actors. But we did it and in a big way. Now, when I watch the film, I take note of the real actors and say to myself, what bullshit - they're just reading a script written for them. We didn't read from any text, we just talked."

"In the middle of filming, we thought about whether there was even any point in continuing, we weren't sure it would work," says another "Ajami" actor, Hilal Kabob. "We all worked without scripts, we said things that came from the heart. But in the end, I think that's the secret of the movie's success."

Producer Moshe Danon acknowledges that it was his first time being involved in such a film. "At first, I was full of concerns and was very skeptical, but there was something that kept me involved," says Danon. "Maybe it was the film's charm, the human story that manages to be so deeply touching, or perhaps it's because you feel that it's a movie that tells a real story."

Indeed, the courage shown by the two writer-directors in taking an unconventional path and their insistence on using nonprofessional actors from among the neighborhood's residents not only added authenticity and a realistic edge to the film, it also contributed to the media interest in the picture both in Israel and abroad.

The same thing happened with the Israeli film nominated at last year's Oscars, Ari Folman's "Waltz with Bashir." It too was a film whose creators insisted on remaining true to their original vision, despite the many raised eyebrows they encountered: they created a full-length animated documentary, even though conditions in the local industry led many to view the project as completely impossible.

"When a film like 'Ajami' achieves such status," says Danon, "it is first of all a source of pride for the country, but it is also a great victory for cinematic productions made here in Israel, with modest budgets and under difficult conditions that successfully compete with productions from other countries and with films with much larger budgets."

He notes that during the fundraising effort for the film, he and his partner in the production, Talia Kleinhendler, approached commercial broadcasters, but they refused to support the film. "They did not connect to it, apparently because they thought that it wasn't commercial enough. In the end, Reshet joined the production team, but that happened at a relatively late stage."

Danon also commented on a discussion that took place last week in the Knesset's Education, Culture and Sports Committee, where Knesset members sought to review the process that prompted the Israel Film Fund to support Jonathan Segal's film "Odem" (following reports that it appeared to draw a comparison between the Holocaust and the Israeli occupation).

"The Israel Film Fund was an entity that accompanied us from the start and gave us complete creative license to work as we wanted to. I think this nomination is the best proof of where creative license and freedom of expression can lead," Danon said.

The director of the Israel Film Fund, Katriel Schory, said it is actually the two directors' courage and originality that earned the fund's support. "What grabbed us was the freshness, the innovation and the two young directors' desire to take a chance on the method for making the film - to go to the neighborhood and work with the residents; to set up an impromptu studio there; to meet all of the neighborhood residents and form an ensemble of actors out of them," Schory said. "It's a gamble that came from both of their hearts, and an entire neighborhood stood by them. There is something interesting about that, and also a risk that can and should be taken."

Like its two recent predecessors at the Oscar awards ceremony - "Beaufort" and "Waltz with Bashir" - "Ajami" also addresses the impact of the regional conflict, and specifically on those who live here. But in this respect, it paints a more complex picture and also offers a look at other internal conflicts: between Jews and Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis, Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs, and law enforcement agents and those who violate the law.

Sigal Harel and Tamar Yerushalmi, who both appear in the film, say that part of its power stems from its many perspectives. "Everyone in this movie has his truth; everyone sees the same situation in a different way. There is no objectivity," Harel said. "I had a feeling that the portrayal of the Arabs in 'Ajami' was also very revealing, free of stigmas - that such things have not yet been seen in Israeli films. Once you look at what's happening through the eyes of the Arabs and identify with them completely, and then you look at it through the eyes of the Jews and also identify - it's hard to decide which side experiences greater trauma from this situation."

Ajami residents say its impact on the neighborhood and its image is already being felt. "People think Jaffa is all about crime, murder and shootings. Now everyone sees that something good can also come out of Jaffa," said Hilal Kabob.

"Money is staring to stream into centers in Jaffa, to places that need help, to distressed youth," Shahir Kabaha, who also appears in the film, claimed. "The film made people aware of what is happening here, and because of that more money has started flowing in."

After the exultant press conference, however, Kabob voices some of the residents' concerns. "I really hope this film doesn't give Jaffa a bad name, because it also portrays the drugs, the killings, the violence and the police that operate here. I hope they won't think about that abroad and will also look at the positive things. When I watch this film, I see my everyday life."