"Ajami": A Film to Challenge the Israeli and Palestinian Narratives?

Hitting US theaters today is Ajami, Israel's contender at this year's Academy Awards, which has also been garnering praise at Cannes and other international film festivals.

The vast, multi-language epic of family feuds, police detectives and Bedouin revenge squads - in Arabic and Hebrew - portrays the grim realities of life in the Arab-Jewish city of Jaffa, but with a twist: All the roles in the film are played by a huge cast of nearly 150 non-actors. Only the plot, but not the lines, are scripted. The result is a film that feels unsettlingly real in its scenes of revenge killings, grief and violence.

Ajami was co-directed by two filmmakers: Scandar Copti, a Palestinian filmmaker from Jaffa, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli filmmaker from Tel Aviv. Together they present a film that has been acclaimed for challenging the narratives of both cultures, while simultaneously creating pathways toward greater empathy on both sides.

I spoke with Yaron Shani in September, and he described the process by which he and Copti made the film entirely with non-actors. "Ajami presents reality in the form of a fiction film," he explains. "Our actors were not given a script. We put them through very intense psychological preparations that made them very close to the characters. Then when we put them in situations that had been written by us, they acted very much like the way we wrote those scenes the first time.

"So what we have is a fiction film, and you can see it's not real--but you can be tricked into thinking it is because the sounds and the way people behave is so realistic." The advantage to using non-actors, says Shani, is that people from the neighborhood in Jaffa behave like real people from the neighborhood.

The film took seven years to make, and Shani taught himself Arabic and immersed himself in the culture as part of that process. That Israeli and Arab cultures in Israel live in such close quarters, yet are so disconnected from one another, meant that Shani was relatively unexposed to Arab culture until he decided to explore it as a young adult. As a result, he ended up learning Arabic and meeting people in Ajami as well as police detectives and soldiers, all of whom would ultimately provide inspiration for characters in the film.

"I've been going through an amazing journey by making this film, by meeting so many people that I would never have met if I had done something else," says Shani.

Bradley Burston of Haaretz urged his readers - of all political affiliations - to see Ajami to get a better understanding of life on the ground in Israel. He writes,"What Ajami shows, in continually surprising revelations, is the essential core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: people on both sides trying to protect their loved ones and keep them alive, often with heartbreaking consequences."