Saturday, March 6, 2010

To Protest Screenings of Ajami or Why Do Zionists Like Ajami?

by Michelle J. Kinnucan

Ajami is an Israeli film that is in contention for an Academy Award this Sunday for Best Foreign Language Film. Whether it wins the Oscar or not, it has already gained a lot of international attention and accolades and it will probably be in American theaters soon. Clearly, as an Israeli film, it falls within the scope of Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) and the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel (BDS).

However, as Palestine solidarity activists our critics and some of our allies will object if we target Ajami for protests and boycott actions especially because the film is about life in a Palestinian neighborhood and features Palestinian actors and a Palestinian co-writer/director/editor, Scandar Copti. But consider these excerpts from an interview with Copti in al-Jazeera in September 2009:
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 ...

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'?

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.
Now, consider some thoughts in a BBC review by Palestinian attorney Raja Shehadeh (segment starts at 8:05 or listen to the review only below). Shehadeh is an Orwell Prize winner and founder of Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization, he says:
[The world of Ajami is] a city of drive-by shootings, drugs, and racketeering, where men, young and old, are shot or stabbed to death on the slightest provocation and shady sheikhs in Arab dress sort out the blood money in what is supposed to pass as tribal justice. ... the unrelieved blood-letting punctuated only by moments of love and loyalty to family and friends leaves us in no doubt that the Jewish citizens of Israel exist in a jungle infested by bloodthirsty, uncivilized Arabs who live inside and outside its borders exactly as Israeli propagandists claim. If Israel is to make it, the story goes, this tiny bastion of civilization has no choice but to remain militarized and on full alert. What the film fails to open our eyes to is why life in Jaffa has come to this. After one of the senseless murders by Arab assailants, the Israeli television commentator explains that poverty and unemployment often lead to crime. But are these the only reasons that explain why things have become so bad in Ajami? The film makes no reference to what Jaffa has been and what it has gone through or the present threat of eviction facing many in its Ajami quarter. Before most of its inhabitants were forced out by Israel in the 1948 Nakba--the catastrophe--it was a prosperous city of over one hundred thousand citizens that was described as the "Bride of the Sea." After the establishment of Israel the city was left to rot. Nor does the film give any hint of the host of economic and travel restrictions imposed on the territories Israel occupied in 1967, restrictions which force another of its characters, Malik, a one-time resident of Nablus, to seek illegal employment in Jaffa and there, enduring daily hardships, he becomes involved in drug dealing and dies as a result. ... surely a film that wants us to open our eyes to reality should not serve ideology by compromising truth. In July 1936, Ben-Gurion, one of the founders of Israel, wrote, in his diary: "I would welcome the destruction of Jaffa, port and city. Let it come. It would be for the better. If Jaffa went to hell, I would not count myself among the mourners." ...
The final excerpt for your consideration shows how Ajami, as Scandar Copti suggested, is being exploited by Zionists. This passage comes from an article in Ha'aretz entitled "The cowardice, the vanity, the sin of boycotting Israel." As you read it please recall that it was written after Scandar Copti had it pulled from the "City to City" program of the Toronto International Film Festival, which was a focused effort to celebrate Tel Aviv and rebrand Israel after its massacre in Gaza the winter before. Author Bradley Burston writes:
Live in this tainted Holy Land long enough, and you come to learn that there are two kinds of political activists, much as there are two kinds of artists.

The first kind, the kind who changes the world, points to something that has yet to have been seen, something that seriously needs to be seen, and cries out, "Look at this."

The second kind, the kind who changes nothing, barks in a voice every bit as insistent, "Look at me."

I was privileged this weekend to attend a marriage of art and activism of the first sort, the new film "Ajami." Jointly directed by an Israeli-born Palestinian and a Jewish Israeli, spoken mostly in an Arabic salted with Hebrew, Ajami is an overwhelming work, clenched, compassionate, violent, perplexing, complex beyond facile comprehension. It is a creature of this place. It rings true.

Given the depth and breadth of its lens, and the fact that the directors worked for seven years to fit their story into two hours, it is all the more galling that earlier this month, political activists very much of the second sort, bluntly caught Ajami in the collateral damage of a scattershot anti-Israel campaign.

Ajami was among a number of dark and critical Israeli films, among them "Lebanon" and "Jaffa," which were effectively sniffed at and dismissed by the strident, star power-chasing protest at the Toronto International Film Festival, a protest so shallow and so misplayed, that it has had the effect of doing the occupation a distinct favor.

There is something in Ajami's nuance that helps explain why the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, of which the Toronto protest was an ingenuously unacknowledged bastard cousin, has proven a wholesale failure.

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.
In short, Zionists like Ajami for the reasons pointed to by Raja Shehadeh. The film reinforces negative stereotypes about Arabs-Palestinians and decontextualizes life in Ajami from the socio-political reality of Jewish apartheid and the historical realities of the Nakba and the ongoing occupation of Palestine.

Update: 7 March 2010 - This post was republished in the Palestine Chronicle today. An article in Ha'aretz today confirms that Ajami was produced with funds from the Israeli government and Scandar Copti has created a stir by reportedly saying, "I am not Israel's national team and do not represent her".

See also: "Update on Ajami"

Michelle J. Kinnucan's writing has previously appeared in, Critical Moment, Palestine Chronicle, Arab American News, Electronic Intifada, Palestine Think Tank and elsewhere. Her 2004 investigative report on the Global Intelligence Working Group was featured in Censored 2005: The Top 25 Censored Stories (Seven Stories Pr., 2004) and she contributed a chapter to Finding the Force of the Star Wars Franchise (Peter Lang, 2006). Click here for information on how to contact her.

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