From Lebanon War to Gang Wars, a Step Up for the Israeli Film Industry?

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Over the last couple of years, Israel's films represented in The Academy Awards where on the topic of Lebanon (Waltz with Bashir and Beaufort) and displayed the horrors of war. This year, Israel takes it up a notch and displays the horrors of gang life in Jaffa with the groundbreaking film Ajami by Scander Kopti and Yaron Shani. Although this film does not portray Israel in the finest of lights and shows violence, drugs and corruption, the film does capture a day to day reality of the life in some of the fringe areas of Israel. Far from the land of Milk and Honey, Ajami presents a reality of Israel often excluded from the news as well Birthright tours.

Showing gang life in Israel, in a strange way creates a normalization of Israel in the eyes of the public. Israel is not just wars and the Arab Israeli conflict, it has crime and violence just like any good-ol' western country. The problems in Israel that Ajami brings forth are social, not political, and that is relatable to movie goers anywhere in the world.

Ajami breaks another taboo. The film gives Arabs in Israel a true face. Although they are living in a world of crime, this refreshing approach shows Arabs who are not martyrs or terrorists, but rather interacting with society in a "normal" (however criminal) way. Most of the Arabs depicted in Ajami are citizens of Israel who make up 20% of Israel's society and interact with every level of Israel's existence. From Business owners, to DJ's and drug dealers, at a time of global "random" security checks, when Arabs are often dehumanized, this film shows a sad but normal humanity.

I viewed the film with some Palestinian-Israeli filmmakers. They were very disturbed by the image of Arabs that this film portrays. When I asked them how is the reality of the neighborhood of Ajami, anything like the conditions depicted in the film, I received a clear reply: The reality is much worse.

I find solace in the fact that Israel has a film industry that supports young Arab and Jewish talent even with unconventional films, which bring to the surface the social issues of their community. This is a sign of a healthy democracy and frankly, one of the few ways to raise awareness and create change.

Ultimately, much of the power of this film comes from the unique filmmaking techniques. First time directors Kopti and Shani used non-actors and hand held cameras, (reminiscent of a toned down City of God) to successfully capture the reality of this subculture. The result is a refreshing non-Hollywood-like charm. Ajami is also told out of order and weaves stories together evoking Pulp Fiction and Crash. All of these elements from freshman directors are the direct result of Israel's colorful and deep culture and booming film industry. In a time of cut-backs, this is the area that needs to continue to expand.

And through all the violence, mayhem and madness, the most memorable moment in the film for me is when we discover that one of our heroes has a secret love affair. There is a moment when they secretly lock pinkies as they pass each other in a bar. Without a word, the audience is filled with the power and hope of an authentic connection. There is nothing more normal than that.

 

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