Israel’s War Against Palestine: Documenting the Military Occupation of Palestinian and Arab Lands

Ajami Director: No apologies

25 March 2010

By Shai Grunberg, Haaretz – 25 March 2010

It’s not easy to get hold of Scandar Copti for an interview. Right after the Oscar awards ceremony, where “Ajami” competed in the best foreign-language film category, he set off for a promotional trip to Berlin and Paris. Then he went to Oslo, to take part in a video exhibition, “Stop Making Sense,” of Israeli and Palestinian films that raise political questions about narratives and identities in Israel. Copti is presenting the short film “Truth” (“Emet”), which he made in 2002 with musician Rabih Boukhari (who also composed the original score for “Ajami”). In the midst of all this traveling, the 34-year-old director is fleshing out ideas for three new movies – one feature and two documentaries, shooting material for new video pieces and attempting to make time for his new marriage. He and Mouna, 29, were married, in Jaffa, three months ago.

We “meet” via Skype video chat. Copti sits in his Oslo hotel room, wearing a checkered shirt that stands out against the white curtain in the background. Just a few minutes earlier his agent called to tell him that he would be continuing on to Madrid and Rome for premieres of “Ajami” and then “to four other places, I don’t remember where right now,” Scandar sighs wearily. “We’re also getting invited to festivals in all sorts of places whose names, I’m embarrassed to say, I can’t even pronounce. I’m starting to miss normal life, a life without suitcases. But the truth is that it’s wonderful, because ‘Ajami’ is becoming such a success, and is being sold for distribution – in Russia, Asia, Australia, South America, all over Europe, even in Hungary, but it’s tiring. Everywhere you go it’s the same questions and the same responses.”

So it’s no easy task to get Copti excited. Even the Oscars left him rather indifferent. “It wasn’t anything special. For most of the ceremony I was outside with the director of the French movie ‘Un Prophete,’ Jacques Audiard, which was competing against us. We smoked cigarettes and drank champagne. We missed a lot of the ceremony because you’re only allowed to leave and come back during the commercials. It was funny to find out that as soon as you get up from your seat someone in a suit comes and sits down in your place so that when the cameras sweep the audience there won’t be any empty spots,” he laughs. “When it was over, I returned to the hotel with Yaron Shani, the other director of the movie, and with the producers [Moshe Danon and Talia Kleinhendler], and we met the actors there and ate hamburgers.”

Copti continues: “For me, the movie’s biggest achievement wasn’t the Oscar nomination but the fact that it brought 200,000 people into movie theaters in Israel. Because when a Jew can identify with a Palestinian character – even after 62 years of dehumanization – to cry when the Arab character cries, to laugh when he laughs and to live that character’s life – that’s the most important thing to me. At the end of the day, we wanted to make a film that would open people’s eyes, as Nasri [Fouad Habash] says at the end of the movie.”

Supporting art

Copti has not been back to Israel since the Oscars, and so did not experience firsthand the uproar he caused when he remarked, before an Israel Channel 2 camera, just before the ceremony: “I am a citizen of Israel but do not represent it. I cannot represent a country that does not represent me.”

These comments immediately whipped up a furor. First it was Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat, who said: “It is thanks to funds from the State of Israel, from which Scandar Copti is now trying to disassociate himself, that the movie ‘Ajami’ was produced and attained an Oscar nomination. Without the state’s support, Copti wouldn’t be walking the red carpet tonight.”

This was followed, predictably, by criticism from right-wing Knesset members, including Alex Miller of Yisrael Beiteinu and Michael Ben Ari of National Union. MK Daniel Hershkowitz, the chairman of Habayit Hayehudi, said: “Copti made a movie using Israeli money, but is liable to wrap himself in a Hamas flag if he wins tonight.”

Inflammatory media coverage kept the pressure up. In his column in Yedioth Ahronoth, Hanoch Daum figuratively sent Copti to the Gaza Strip, while online comments and responses added to the hysteria, from “that Arab doesn’t represent me and I hope he doesn’t win the Oscar” to “they’re all inciters and spies and traitors encouraging their rabble to attack and hurt Jews and destroy the State of Israel!” When “Ajami” lost out to the Argentinian film “The Secret in Her Eyes,” the Internet message boards exploded with gloating over Copti’s defeat.

Copti, as expected, does not understand what all the fuss is about. “All I really did was to clearly state the same thing that the movie says. I’ve said the same thing many times before, mainly to the international media. I know it’s hard to hear, that I kind of ruined the celebration because an individual’s success is always appropriated by the country as a whole, but it’s what I genuinely feel. I genuinely do not represent the state and the state does not represent me.”

Why doesn’t it represent you?

“Because there is terrible discrimination and oppression in this country, and anyone who says there is no oppression here apparently needs to see ‘Ajami’ again. Every scene is an example of oppression. People see the movie and say: ‘Hey, there are Arab criminals.’ So stop for a second and think about it – why is this story being told to you? Who made them become criminals? Were they born that way? Is it in their culture? No, there’s a problem! There’s a problem because the school dropout rate in Jaffa is over 50 percent. There’s a problem when there have been more than 80 murders in Jaffa in the past 10 years. You can’t say that these are just bad people who only want to kill people.

“The movie doesn’t make specific accusations because they don’t lead anywhere, only to more failure to take responsibility, but it does show reality and its background is clear. We all know what it is. To just ignore it, to say to me: ‘How can you think that the state doesn’t represent you?,’ means that people haven’t really understood the movie.”

What is this “clear background”?

Copti sighs. “Successive Israeli governments that prevent the most basic things, such as self-definition, in every way possible, whether through racist laws, the naming of streets, the way the state handles social welfare situations. Racism and discrimination is employed at all levels. I can talk to you about 500 families in Jaffa, in my area, who have received eviction and demolition orders for their homes and are living under an existential threat. I can talk to you about the low level of education in the Arab schools, about the lack of employment opportunities, about unemployed college graduates, about drug problems. I attended the French school, College des Freres, and the dropout rate was 90 percent. What’s behind that? An inability to deal with people who have learning difficulties. The easy solution is to throw out the student, to shut him up, to get rid of the problems. It’s like when Dan Margalit is sitting in the television studio with [Balad chairman, MK Jamal] Zahalka and suddenly screams at him and throws him out because it’s unpleasant to hear what he has to say. This is the background – institutionalized racism.”

So what do you say to those who claim there’s a contradiction between your receiving government funding for your film and declaring that you don’t represent the state?

“Art doesn’t represent a state or the foundation that financed it. We’re in trouble if art starts to represent states. That’s called propaganda, and I’m not prepared to make propaganda. The [Israeli Film] Foundation operates as a public foundation that gives taxpayers’ money to directors and screenwriters not because of their views and what they represent, but for artistic and production-related considerations. The foundation paid for 40 percent of ‘Ajami’ [the remaining 60 percent came from German foundations] because the foundation’s chairman and judges thought the screenplay was worthy of financing.”

Divide and conquer

Copti and Shani began to conceive a movie about real life in Jaffa about seven years ago. The process that followed was long, complex and unique in the annals of Israeli filmmaking, and filmmaking in general. First they collected personal stories from local residents to use as the basis for the screenplay, and at the same time they decided to use local people for the cast. Since none of them had any prior acting experience, Copti and Shani held a year-long workshop in which the cast learned to get used to the presence of the camera, to improvise and to really get to know the history of each character. For each character, several potential candidates took part in the workshop, until the final cast was chosen.

During the filming, the cast never had access to the full screenplay and the scenes were filmed in chronological order, to ensure that their responses were as authentic as possible, whereas in the final result the film shifts forward and backward in time as another way to encourage the audience to identify with the characters.

Copti, who has a degree in mechanical engineering from the Haifa Technion, abandoned the master’s degree program in film at Tel Aviv University when he started working as a director’s assistant on Eran Riklis’ “The Syrian Bride.” “Ajami” is Copti’s first feature-length film, made in full collaboration with Shani, who stood by Copti through all the commotion created by his comments. In an interview he gave to the Walla! Internet portal immediately after returning to Israel, Shani said: “A lot of people feel there’s a witch-hunt atmosphere, that it’s impossible to say anything…. It’s scary and I also feel scared in a way…. There is a lynch atmosphere in the country, the notion that ‘If you don’t think the same as me, then you need to be silenced, you need to be attacked and kept out.'”

Scandar, you said before that an entire population is afraid to say the things you’re saying. Afraid of what?

“If you go to interview people in Jaffa, they won’t tell you that they don’t represent the State of Israel because it will bring punishment in its wake, just like after October 2000, when Jaffa was deserted for two years. Jews stopped coming to eat hummus and people went out of business. This is the direct result of the oppression. This might make you think that the people of Jaffa would be cohesive, right? But as the movie shows, Jaffa is split into a million and one parts. Why? Because when oppression is used against a weakened minority then people start to be individualists; everybody starts to worry only about himself and the people closest to him. There’s a split between Muslims and Christians, between rich and poor, between educated and uneducated. And this is just what the oppressor wants – for you to know that you’re all alone in the world. And it works. People start to believe that they’re less important, that they have no voice, that they can’t change their situation.”

But what part does the state play in all this?

Where do you see neglect on the part of Jaffa’s Arabs?

“It’s neglect not to say what I said, that I don’t represent the state. Not to say what you think. Not to demand the equal rights that you deserve as a national minority.” Copti moves closer to the Web camera and raises his voice. “You know what? The money I got from the State of Israel, which helped to finance the movie, represents a tiny victory of the Palestinian national minority in our struggle for equality and for human and civil rights. In a proper country, 20 percent of the film foundation budget would be earmarked for the Palestinian population, as affirmative action. Because we’re a national minority.

“You know why it became such a big deal when I said those things? Because this country is based on fear and teaches fear. Fear of being outside the consensus, of being attacked. Now some MK wants to pass a law that if you’re not loyal to the state you can’t receive money to make a movie. What I said doesn’t conform to the Zionist consensus so they want to intimidate me by threatening to shut off the faucet.” He relaxes again and settles back into his seat. “I know it’s hard for people to hear things about themselves and I’m ready to pay the personal price because I do believe that I have the power to change the world,” he says with a smile. “And that’s why I make my art.”

Police brutality

Copti’s art was no help to him five weeks ago, when his brothers Tony and Jeras were arrested on suspicion of interfering with police officers in the execution of their duties and severely beaten by officers. It was a typical and disturbing Jaffa episode.

It began when a break-in was reported at a building on Kedem Street. The responding officers suspected that two teenagers there were hiding drugs in a hole in the ground. A third person appeared on the scene, and according to the officers he shouted at them and rocked their patrol car. Tony and Jeras Copti came while the man was being placed under arrest. The officers claim they and other local residents assaulted them. The Coptis claim that the officers were going after two kids who were really only trying to bury their dog, and that’s why they tried to protect them.

Overall, Copti said, family support is key for him. “I come from a very liberal and democratic family that taught me to accept the other and respect his uniqueness together with your own. [His mother, Mary Copti, is principal of the Arab Democratic School of Jaffa. His father, Elia, is a carpenter. Scandar's brothers, like him, all have engineering degrees.] If not for that I wouldn’t have been able to make a movie like this, that talks about both sides. For an Arab for whom police brutality is part of his daily reality, it’s hard to view a policeman as a human being, because this is the guy who beats up his brothers, but still it was important for me to show the police officer in the movie as a human being with feelings, who has children of his own and troubles, like anyone else.”

Your critics didn’t show you the same sensitivity.

“No, but I read what [playwright] Joshua Sobol wrote [on Walla!], and the Haaretz editorial that supported me, and I say, wow, I got a very important discussion started. And I’m not out of my mind. There are other people who think as I do and who want to change the country we live in a little bit and who can identify with the other side, and that fills me with hope. Because if more people open their eyes for a moment and try to understand why the other side acts the way it does, and identifies with it, then in the end we’ll all find a common denominator for change. So I am optimistic now, and to the people who are really living in total despair and think they have no control over the situation and that they’re just a drop in the sea, I say that we are a lot of drops, and a lot of drops eventually add up to an ocean.” W

[IOA Editor: This Haaretz story appears to be truncated on the original Haaretz page.]

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