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Deconstructing Ajami

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If there's one thing that last year's election protests in Iran taught the American public, it's that rarely is the conventional narrative the only one, or indeed the most important. Until the riots broke out, there was an implicit assumption that if Iran could elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then your average Iranian had very little, to nothing, in common with your average American.

As it turns out, most young Iranians have more in common with their Western counterparts than one would think. At the same time their Western counterparts were Tweeting the latest celebrity gossip, Iranian youths Tweeted and text messaged the Green Revolution into existence across their country. And before long, the defining image of the 2009 election protests emerged, not on television, but on YouTube: the shooting of a young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, was captured on video, and ricocheted around the world. A new picture of Iran emerged, one that was less a black-and-white enemy of Western states and more of a Technicolor conflict zone, mired in internal political struggle.

That moving images can help to explicate the issues surrounding a political subject is not a new idea. Art is a medium far better at exposing the inevitably fallible human element of any story. And so in that way, the Oscar-nominated film Israeli film, Ajami, lends itself to understanding perhaps the most fundamental political and social issue at work in the Israel-Palestine conflict: distrust.

To say that Ajami (or even 2006's The Bubble) is not a political film is to assume that a "political film" necessitates a story about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself -- a story about building walls and suicide bombings, the right of return and disputed settlements, the IDF and Hamas. Ajami is far more complex than that, and far less Manichean in its treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To start, the options available to the different characters in this well-crafted neo-documentary are all completely framed by their political status.

Still, one need not take a position on the conflict itself to come away from Ajami understanding the way distrust frames every sequence of the film, as well as the larger issues at work: a Palestinian's death after a visit from the police is automatically assumed to be murder at the hands of the Israeli state; a Jewish neighbor's noise complaint brings about a stabbing by a young Arab; a budding love between family friends of differing religions is considered a threat to both families' survival. Even as trust is extended, it is taken away, with tragic results all around.

Filmmakers Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti -- the former an Israeli Jew, the latter a Palestinian citizen of Israel -- themselves went on record saying that in order to make the film, they had to get past their own distrust of each other: "It could never have been done without the will to listen and relate to new ideas and perspectives of the other side," said Copti. "That is why the work revolved mainly around hanging out together and gaining a strong friendship and trust."

The pair elaborates further: "From the beginning, Ajami was a project that was going to be about the human side of this community. We felt that dealing with the human side is the only way to address the big issues that are behind everything."

No single film will bring peace to the Middle East, but just as the Green Revolution opened up a new way of discussing and understanding Iran, films like Ajami (and The Bubble), provide a new context for understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the level of the nation-state, the players involved in any narrative about different peoples take on Goliath-like proportions, which inevitably dilute the human political element. But that is where most people live their lives: in their communities, some safe and some ravaged by factional war, infighting, and drugs. It is impossible to separate one from the other, especially as films like Ajami are almost inevitably going to be seen by audience members living in those territories as testaments to, and reflections on, their daily attempts to survive. Seeing that struggle up close can help to move the political needle by encouraging discussion and further collaboration; if Shani and Copti can build a friendship and trust that produces an Oscar-nominated film, then surely the issue of trust can, one day, be put to bed -- maybe not today, but eventually.

For now, though, Ajami asks audiences to step outside of what they typically know about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this space, there are no right answers, no good and evil -- just a lot of young people learning, by trial and deathly error, the limits of trust and cooperation in a war-torn region.