Interview: Palestinian cinema

Filmmaker Scandar Copti says cinema can help Palestinians construct their own history.

Scandar Copti’s film, Ajami, features non-actors and tells the story of Palestinians living in Jaffa

Scandar Copti is a Palestinian filmmaker born and raised in Jaffa. After leaving his profession as a mechanical engineer to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a filmmaker, his first full-length feature film, Ajami, which he co-directed with Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jewish filmmaker, has won innumerable awards.

While shot in only 23 days, the film took 14 months to edit and seven years to fund and write.

Ajami is based on a true story about Palestinians who live in Jaffa amid the growing Jewish metropolis of Tel Aviv in a neighbourhood that has been gentrified, marginalised and oppressed.

Like the Sao Paulo favela-based film, City of God, the film uses non-actors in a setting where violence and conflict is a daily reality.

Copti talks to Al Jazeera about his film’s success, representing Israel and the growth of Palestinian cinema.

Al Jazeera: Ajami is based on a story about a revenge murder, but it is also a neighbourhood in Jaffa that you are from. It took you seven years to make the film, tell us more about it.

in depth


  Framing Tel Aviv
  Film festival courts controversy
  ‘US perpetuates Arab stereotypes’
  The Fabulous Picture Show: Ajami
  The Fabulous Picture Show:

Scandar Copti: Ajami is a story of an Arab ghetto in the city of Jaffa where violence and hatred are a daily reality.

The basis of the film was to capture the reaction to state oppression and the sense of the impossibility of justice by looking at how the criminal element becomes a role model for the young men of Jaffa as they defy the Jewish law.

We adapted stories of these young men who often become the victim of the resulting anarchy into a very precise structure, all the while keeping them true to reality, which is why I decided to use non-actors.

Our actors were not given scripts. They didn’t know where we were heading. We threw them into real situations, and they reacted spontaneously, like they would in the real world.

The Israeli Film Academy just announced that you won five Ophir awards, including best picture and screenplay – a first for a Palestinian filmmaker – and now your film will go on to represent Israel at next year’s Oscars. What are your feelings about this?

I am happy that I’m being recognised as a filmmaker, and I value my rights just like any other citizen. But as a Palestinian citizen of the Israeli state, I have no equal rights. The idea of the citizen is non-existent for Palestinians living inside the Israeli state.

I am aware that Israel has exploited and tokenised Palestinians for their branding campaign, to show the world that Israel is a multicultural place that gives everyone an equal opportunity, even Arabs. Yet they won’t even use the word Palestinian because we’re not allowed to be Palestinian. Palestine does not exist for them.

But I am pleased that I am being recognised for my work. In one week, 20,000 people came to watch Ajami. This is big for the film industry in Israel, especially for an Arabic-speaking film.

How has your film been received by Israeli audiences and critics?

All of Israel’s film critics liked my film. There is always one or two that are contrarian, but everyone seemed to like it. I didn’t put text in the actor’s (who weren’t really actors) faces and expect them to read and memorise. It was all improvisations – from start to finish. So they brought their real life to screen, and I think people related to this.

Ajami is not about good versus evil. The entire film is built on the specific perspectives of five people, and we see life through their life.

It was the first time Israelis watched a film that has both a Palestinian and Israeli character, which focuses on them as humans; it doesn’t victimise anyone, nor does it come from a patronising perspective.

It was also met with hesitancy in some cases. A friend of mine told me how she went to a screening, south of Tel Aviv, and that a woman sitting behind her said “What? This film is in Arabic” and then immediately walked out.

Just in 2009 alone Palestinian filmmakers have advanced tremendously: from Cherien Dabis’ Amreeka, which opened nationwide in US cinemas in August to Elia Suleiman’s award-winning film, The Time That Remains. What does this exposure mean for Palestinian cinema?

Today I can say this without embarrassment that Palestinian cinema is what makes Arab cinema. This year at the Cannes Film Festival, three Palestinian films were showcased. Palestinian cinema has a place. Why? Because we have compelling stories.

Drama starts from conflict. And we all know Palestine is not missing conflict. Ajami is about conflict, and conflict makes for good drama, and good drama makes for good film.

Your celebration comes at a time when trilateral peace negotiations are stagnant. Do you feel this is a development for Palestinian cinema, or is Israel using this opportunity to expand its public image with its Brand Israel campaign, which is meant to make Israel more ‘attractive’?

The film is based on a story about
a revenge murder

I think they chose the film because it is a good film. It is a film that didn’t scare them. It’s a film that’s humanising. It’s a very dramatic and powerful film.

People who go to see Ajami will have lots of room to interpret and think about the reality of the situation without feeling the message was forced, or someone saying “this is all your fault”.

The film has a lot of self-criticism about the society I live in, but not from a director’s perspective or manifesto.

But will Israel exploit it? I’m sure they will. They tried to do so in Toronto, but I pulled my film out of the City to City whose focus this year was Tel Aviv, and had them place it in the world cinema category. I also did not go to Toronto because I was really upset with their decision. They want people to believe Israel is a diverse society that is accepting, which is not true.

There are more and more Palestinian film festivals emerging throughout the world. The point is not to politicise film, but to disseminate honest filmmaking about Palestine. Some people believe a film’s message is more important than artistic merit. What are your thoughts on the role Palestinian film festivals play in advancing the Palestinian cause?

Palestinian films aren’t the only politicised films. What about American films that like to dehumanise Arabs and show the world that we’re terrorists? Hany abu-Assad did the opposite of this. In Paradise Now, he showed Palestinians as human – so, yes, there is a place for politicised film.

There’s a target audience who wants to learn more about the Palestinian cause. That’s not my specialty though. I like to show people what life is like for people on the ground, on a day-to-day basis. It’s important for me to relay their message.

You watch a film like Ajami and in the end you understand that we’re all human and we all want to live. And all this dividing of the world between good versus evil is not helping us.

It’s inevitable though to be politicised when coming out of Palestine. Everything is politicised: our music, our television shows, our film. We can’t just leave everything. The political context will always be present because we cannot leave it. It’s a part of our life. That’s why it’s important for film festivals to show Palestinian cinema – it is needed so we can send out our films to everyone.

If a film is good, people will watch it. There is definitely a place for Palestinian cinema – it’s how we are building our history. This is the first time we’ve been given this platform where we are able to construct our own history. Never before have we utilised media or cinema or art to tell a story with such precision.

Source: Al Jazeera