A conversation with Yaron Shani about making of Ajami

Ajami is a powerful crime drama set on the streets of Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood – a melting pot of cultures and conflicting views among Jews, Muslims and Christians – and told through the eyes of a cross-section of the city’s inhabitants: a young Israeli (Shahir Kabaha) fighting a criminal vendetta against his family, a Palestinian refugee (Ibrahim Frege) working illegally to finance a life-saving surgery, a Jewish police detective (Eran Naim) obsessed with finding his missing brother, and an affluent Palestinian (Scandar Copti) dreaming of a future with his Jewish girlfriend. As their stories intersect – and the film’s narrative shifts back and forth in time – we witness a dramatic collision of different worlds and the tragic consequences of enemies living as neighbors.

Ajami is directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani. Scandar Copti is a Palestinian citizen of the Israeli state, born (in 1975) and raised in Jaffa. His first short, Truth, screened at the 2003 Artists Against Occupation in Montreal, and was purchased by the Israeli Channel 8. Since then, he has written, directed and edited several fiction, documentary and experimental short films.

Yaron Shani that talked to Cinema Without Borders about making of Ajami, is an Israeli Jew, born in 1973. A graduate of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Film and Television, his thesis film, Disphoria, won the Audience Award at the Babelsberg International Student Film Festival, as well as a Special Jury Mention at Karlovy Vary. The film was broadcast on ARTE and ZDF (Germany), and participated in several other international festivals. He has also directed and edited documentaries and 3D films for Orpan Group, shown in museums and cinemas all over the world.

Bijan Tehrani: Your film shows a new image of Israel and Palestine living together and fighting each other in that part of the world, Is Ajame based on real stories?
Yaron Shani: Usually when you make a movie dealing with the Israeli Palestinian conflict, people forget that there are human beings living there. Ajami does reflect in a way the reality of the people that are living in those neighborhoods, so the movie is composed of many true events that are combined to make one big movie.

BT: There are numerous locations, actors, and situations present in this film, explain how challenging was making Ajami?
YS: Every film is hard to make starting from raising funds for it. This film was very unique in the way we made it because we did not work with actors per say, we trained about 300 different people to play these roles and they did that without ever seeing a screenplay; so this made it much harder to get funding and harder to convince anyone that this is going to work. After we shot the movie we came to the editing room with over 80 hours of footage, because the actors were improvising for the most part , so we spent 14 months just editing this film.

BT: Did you have a screen play at the beginning of shooting and how was the screenplay written?
YS: Yes we actually had a very precise screenplay; it took us three and a half years to write the script. After that battle we knew everything because the plot of the movie is very mathematical, everything in the screenplay had to happen in a specific order in order to reach the conclusion of the film. When we dealt with the actors, we had to bring them to say what we wrote in the screen play without them knowing it; the movie was written the way. Ajami’s structure wasn’t created in the editing room it was originally written like this.

BT: How much research did you do for the film?
YS: I researched these stories, I heard of them and I even experienced some of them. I did research because the most important thing for us was reality. There were many things that we did not have access too such as the policeman and the army, but we tried our best to keep it as close to reality as possible.

BT: This is such an interesting film, because when you see this violence happening you see that it is a result of existing tension that triggers the events that are happening in the film. Would you agree with this?
YS: Of course you cannot detach the historical political conflict form the movie, because everything happens for a reason. You can see some of the conflicts happening in the movie, but we don’t dwell on it.

BT: As an Israeli film director it is interesting that you are not taking sides but rather you are telling a human story, would you agree with this?
YS: Yes, we wanted to tell a story about human beings without judging them or choosing sides, and I feel that this is what draws people to the film.

BT: What has the Israeli reaction been to the film?
YS: In Israel it was a huge hit over 200,000 people saw it, which is a very large number in Israel, so it has been received very well.

BT: How did you come up with the visual style of Ajami?
YS: We shot it with non actors and we didn’t block anything so we had to cover the scenes with two cameras at all times, or else we would miss something. So this decided the visual style of the film, which is very rough and realistic.

BT: The way you go form story to another was very interesting, transitioning form the past to the future, was this influenced by the old and traditional way of storytelling in the Middle East?
YS: Mostly we did this because we wanted it to be close to reality and we wanted to people to realize that most of the time you really don’t know who is the person next to you. In our movie the audience only knows what the main character knows, so we don’t know what is true or false. In the first place you think that Vince was murdered by the policeman but when we switch points of view, we realize how he actually died.

BT: How has been the reactions to Ajami outside of Israel?
YS: We had a special mention at Cannes, we got three prizes from a Greek film festival, we also received award in Valencia and also the London film festival.

BT: What do you think about your film representing Israel in the category of Best Foreign Language Film and being among the 9 films in the shortlist?
YS: I hope that we be among the five nominees.

BT: Your way of working with the actors is not telling them the story directly, instead you put them in the situation and let them adapt. What was the reaction of your actors after they saw the film?
YS: It was amazing; they were very surprised because they didn’t know what the story was about.

BT: Do you have any upcoming projects?
YS: We have lots of things that we would like to work on, but right now we just want to enjoy the success of Ajami.
BT: Thank you for your time and best of luck in the future.


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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