- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 17, 2010

JAFFA, Israel | There’s a reason for the gritty feel of reality in “Ajami,” an Oscar-nominated Israeli film about the lives of Arabs and Jews in the impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods of this Mediterranean city: Its amateur actors’ lives eerily mirror their art.

An actress who lost her former husband to gang violence plays a woman fearful her son will die the same way. Neighborhood police are played by real-life former Israeli police officers.

And earlier this month, two brothers of the film’s co-director were arrested for scuffling with police in a scene remarkably similar to one in “Ajami,” only days after the low-budget movie was announced as an Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film.

“Ajami” draws even more profoundly from the world it depicts than the 2008 blockbuster and Best Picture Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire,” with its two leading child actors from the Indian slums.

The Israeli co-directors — Yaron Shani, a Jew, and Scandar Copti, an Arab — shot “Ajami” on location in the rundown, scrappy neighborhood of the same name in the city of Jaffa. More importantly, many from the entirely amateur cast were residents. Mr. Copti himself hails from Ajami.

But just how true-to-life their depiction ended up came into sharp focus with the arrest of two of Mr. Copti’s brothers, one of whom appeared in the film.

Residents said that on the evening of Feb. 6, two teenagers were burying a dead dog when police arrived, suspecting they were hiding drugs. When they questioned the youths, Arab neighbors, who generally distrust law enforcement, came to the scene, some scuffling with police.

Tony Copti, 29, who appeared in the film, told the Associated Press that police are often harsh with Arab residents. After confronting police, he and his brother Jiriass were handcuffed and sprayed in the face with pepper spray before being taken away for questioning, he said.

Police said they briefly detained the men for attacking officers, releasing them after questioning. They gave no further details.

The incident recalls a scene from the film, when police enter Ajami to arrest a drug dealer and neighbors protest, allowing the dealer to slip away. In the next scene, Jewish police blame Arab residents for preventing them from cleaning up the neighborhood.

“The story in the film, that’s how it really happens in Jaffa,” Tony Copti said.

Jaffa is an ancient seaport with roots as far back as the eight century B.C. Today it is part of the much larger, modern Israeli city of Tel Aviv.

Many Arab residents fled Jaffa or were driven out during the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948. Now about 14,000 Arabs live in Jaffa alongside some 40,000 Jews. Many neighborhoods are known for poverty, crime and drugs.

The film, which has been praised in Israel for depicting both Jews and Arabs without demonizing either, lays out intertwining story lines revolving around the neighborhood.

In the movie, a young Arab man reluctantly takes up drug dealing to pay off a debt. A Jewish police officer clashes with Arab residents while dealing with grief over the disappearance of his brother, an Israeli soldier. A Palestinian boy from the West Bank works in Israel illegally to pay his mother’s hospital bills. A Christian father refuses to let his daughter marry the Muslim she loves.

The film, which cost about $1 million, won a special mention at the Cannes Film Festival last year. It is the first Israeli film shot primarily in Arabic to compete for an Oscar.

To cast the film, the directors held acting workshops to drum up talent for each character or group of people in the film — one looked for Jewish police, others for Arab mothers or young men.

The idea was that people acting based on personal experience can outshine professional actors, Mr. Shani said.

“They forget that it’s fiction and delve into the drama, and you can see amazing feelings coming out of them,” he said.

At least two of the Jewish police in the film are former Israeli officers, one of whom worked in Jaffa. Other actors bear less obvious resemblance to their characters. The illegal West Bank worker is an Israeli citizen, but he’s from an Arab town near the West Bank, making his accent right for the film, Mr. Shani said.

The similarities between actress Nisreen Siksik and her character are perhaps the most striking.

Almost two decades ago, a friend of Mrs. Siksik’s then-husband was shot and killed in Ajami. The gang came after her husband, fearing he’d be a witness in court, she said.

Over the years, they made four attempts on his life, once shooting him eight times, another time putting a bomb under his car. In 2005, they ambushed him in his shop, shooting him and sticking around to make sure he was dead.

“It was exactly like the film,” said Mrs. Siksik, 45, a mother of four who still lives in the neighborhood.

Mrs. Siksik said those years living in fear affected how she acted on camera, especially in a scene where her character slaps her son, then erupts into tears when she realizes he has been outside where a gang seeking to kill him could have found him.

“It brought back all that was in my past,” she said.

Since the film’s release, Mrs. Siksik, who works for a Jaffa theater company, has acted in two other Israeli films, but says she has no interest in pursuing an acting career.

Shahir Kabaha, the 25-year-old who plays her character’s son, appears to have other ideas.

The film made a local star out of Mr. Kabaha, who works in his father’s modest Jaffa bakery, and strangers now recognize him on the street. He has since enrolled at a local university to study acting and hopes to land roles in future films.

On a recent evening, Mr. Kabaha was back behind the bakery counter, ringing up orders and putting cherries on a birthday cake.

When a reporter approached to ask how the film had changed him, Mr. Kabaha declined to talk — then he picked up his cell phone and called his agent.

Associated Press writer Diaa Hadid contributed to this article from Jaffa.

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