Neighbourhood watch

The Palestinian director Scandar Copti speaks about the hometown inspiration of his Oscar-nominated movie Ajami.

The rough-and-tumble streets of Jaffa's Ajami neighbourhood probably seasoned Scandar Copti for the Herculean task of making his first feature film, and also lent the film its propulsive realism. But it was his parents' effort to keep him away from danger that pointed him towards his future career. "They wanted to keep us off the streets, so they brought us a lot of films," says the 34-year-old Palestinian. He remembers watching Bruce Lee and French movies on Betamax with his brothers as a child.

"I would try to understand, 'How did they do this? How did they make this funny?'" he recalls. "So I would rewind them and watch them again and again." If his first film is any sign, Copti is a quick study. Ajami, which he co-directed with Yaron Shani, has drawn large crowds and lavish praise, won a special mention for Best First Feature at the Cannes Film Festival and become the first mostly Arabic-language film to sweep Israel's top film honours. Last month, the film received an Oscar nomination for the year's Best Foreign Language Film.

Getting it to the screen was a fraught ordeal that took plenty of time. The idea of an urban crime drama filmed with non-professional actors first came to Shani, who grew up in a seaside village south of the Israeli capital, about a dozen years ago. By 2002 he had put it on the back burner to organise a student film festival, where he came across Copti's 12-minute mockumentary, The Truth. "'He approached me and said, 'Let's work together, I like the way you think,'" says Copti, who gravitated to film after earning a degree in mechanical engineering from a prestigious Israeli university. "I said, 'Whoa. What - a movie?'"

The two began working on a jigsaw puzzle of a script set in Ajami, a neighbourhood that offered a glimpse into the life of the roughly 1.5 million Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship. Today a part of much larger Tel Aviv, Jaffa is an ancient seaport that dates to the eighth century BC. Most of the city's Arab residents fled with the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, and Jaffa now contains some 40,000 Jews and about 18,000 Arabs.

Nestled against the Mediterranean, Ajami is the city's only predominantly Arab quarter. Some 25 per cent of its residents are Jewish, but with recent gentrification that number has been increasing - along with tensions. Socio-economically, the neighbourhood is diverse. Judges live above criminals and doctors next to those on the margins. Shacks with no electricity sit near restaurants with gorgeous sea-views, like the one in the film. Copti worked there as a waiter and cook while he and Shani pounded out the script.

"It's so hard to create something from nothing," he says, citing scriptwriting as the most difficult part of making Ajami. "Sometimes you feel stupid, sometimes you have nothing to say and you lose your self-confidence." Finishing the screenplay took three and a half years. Then the two inexperienced filmmakers strolled into Israeli production houses peddling a movie that called for dozens of non-professional actors who would never see the script. It would be made mostly in Arabic and shot in chronological order, using two cameras simultaneously.

"'What, are you nuts? Please close the door on your way out,'" Copti recalls one producer telling them. "We were knocking on the doors of producers and nobody wanted to get in." Eventually they raised nearly $1 million (Dh3.7m). Next they put the word out in the neighbourhood that they were looking for non-professional actors. Some 300 people turned up, from high-school kids to ex-convicts, mothers, sisters and former police officers. After several workshops they'd trimmed the group to a few dozen and began role-playing.

The goal was to move the participants - not actors - away from performing and towards reacting with real emotion. They were asked to crawl on the floor like serpents, to scream at the top of their lungs or chase each other with chairs. "We start with this and you are liberated, you don't see the camera any more," Copti explains. "Then, bit by bit we add emotions and start to see which participant would fit into which character."

After 10 months of workshops and rehearsals, the cast was set. Filming began, with one unusual condition: none of the actors got a screenplay. "They had to trust us and we had to build this trust," says Copti. The filming took a brisk three weeks. All of Ajami pitched in: cars and locations were provided free of charge; and seeing the cast and crew working late into the night, residents brought Arabic coffee to the set.

Seven years after their first meeting, the co-directors had a film (both filmmakers got married in that span, Shani also became a father and learnt Arabic). But before its release, there was a final hurdle. "We showed it to people, to sell it for distribution, and they said, 'Look, it's an amazing film, but nobody will watch it,'" Copti recalls. "'It's in Arabic, it's complicated, it's not pleasant. It will never make any box office.'"

In the end it was seen by hundreds of thousands of Israelis. That's just one long-standing myth the film upset. Another is that Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians and Christians are homogeneous groups. A third is that each side automatically blames the other for its predicament. Harsh and gritty, Ajami follows the criss-crossing lives of a handful of neighbourhood residents. Omar, a young Muslim, tries to repay a family debt while wooing the Christian Palestinian daughter of a restaurateur. While working illegally in Ajami, a Palestinian teenager from the West Bank turns to crime to pay for his mother's surgery back home. A combustible Israeli police officer desperately seeks answers about his brother's disappearance.

Shani has said, "The film is about a society that is segregated, where people live in bubbles." Even so, the lives of the characters often paralleled the lives of the actors playing them. Copti's brother Tony, who played the drug dealer in the film, was arrested earlier this month after coming to the aid of kids getting harassed by the police. The violent Israeli policeman whose brother goes missing is played by Eran Naim. A month before filming began, says Copti, he was dismissed from the police force after being caught on camera putting his fingers into the nostrils of an Israeli settler who was lying on the floor to protest at his evacuation from Gaza.

And the husband of the first-time actress Nisreen Siksik was chased for years by a gang of killers - once they shot him eight times, another time they bombed his car - before finally being ambushed in his shop. In the film, her son is stalked by a violent clan. Siksik, a 45-year-old mother of four who still lives in Ajami, has acknowledged how all of the old worries flooded back during the filming. Yet she has since acted in two more films.

Critics have given high praise to Ajami's journalistic feel for daily life in a vendetta-fuelled district, its intelligence and even-handedness and its subtle approach to the most tangled of conflicts. "This is Ajami's moment," said The Wall Street Journal. The most significant compliments might have come from an unlikely source. "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," wrote Bradley Burston, the film critic for the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Days after that review was published last September Ajami won best picture, best screenplay and best direction at the Ophirs, the Israeli version of the Academy Awards. Its nomination for an Oscar seemed inevitable. Indeed, a film from Israel or the Palestinian territories has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in four out of the last five years. The streak began in 2006 with the Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now.

Copti condemns the Israeli government for exploiting the film as a promotional tool. He says Palestinians living in Israel have no equal rights, are treated with racism and not allowed to teach their history or culture. He hopes the film calls attention to their plight. "Acknowledging a group of people exists is the beginning," he said. "When you know that something exists, you know it has problems. When you know that it has problems, it's the first step in finding a solution."

Oddsmakers say Ajami's Oscar chances are slim. But if it were to win, Shani would be the first Israeli to win the Oscar, and Copti the first Palestinian. "I never made this film to get awards or nominations," says Copti, who is taking a break from filmmaking to work as the director of community outreach and a programming official with the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. "Getting Israelis to watch it, in Arabic, and to identify with a Palestinian character - to cry when his mother is crying, to humanise him again after 60 years of demonising Arabs and portraying them as terrorists, as inhuman - that's been the most rewarding thing."