For Israelis, both despair and delight at “Ajami” Oscar loss

At the official Oscar party for the Israeli foreign film nominee “Ajami,” the tension between art and politics threatened to overwhelm the night. And rather than celebrate a win for the third consecutive Israeli film to be nominated for an Oscar, private sighs of relief followed the film’s loss to Argentina.

Mixed feelings about the already controversial film were intensified after “Ajami” co-director, Skandar Copti gave a polarizing interview to Israel’s Channel 2 TV hours before the Oscar telecast. In the interview, he denounced his ties to the State of Israel.

“I am not the Israeli national team and I do not represent Israel,” Copti said.

The fallout from Copti’s remarks lingered throughout the evening and divided the mostly Arab-Israeli cast from the rest of the guests in attendance. The Israeli Consulate, who hosted the expensive party at X Bar in Century City, put their best face forward despite the awkward atmosphere, determined to celebrate Israel’s growing inroads in Hollywood.

“Tomorrow no one will remember what [Copti] said,” Consul General of Israel Jacob Dayan said confidently. “They’ll remember that this is an Israeli movie and that it will help make Israel a little stronger by reinforcing the relationship between Israel and Hollywood.”

Shahir Kabaha, one of the film’s stars and an Arab-Muslim resident of the Jaffa neighborhood depicted in the film, relished his moment in the spotlight. The Oscars mark his first visit to both Los Angeles and the United States and multiple camera crews from the Israeli press surrounded him as he gave interviews from the outdoor balcony. For Kabaha, “Ajami” transcends the boundaries of politics to reveal a truth about one slice of Israel.

“I think the film represents human beings,” Kabaha said. “It’s not about Israel; it represents people that are in a bad situation and need help.”

Indeed, the film focuses on the poor and violent underclass that inhabits a religiously and economically mixed neighborhood in Tel Aviv. But while the film portrays Arab Christians, Muslims and Jews engaging in what seems like a gang war, Kabaha said the real neighborhood is more inclusive and that he counts Jews among his friends.

And in fact, “Ajami” itself is the product of an Arab-Jewish partnership.

Copti, who is a Christian Arab, co-directed the film with Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. But, according to Copti, the collaboration is not suggestive of any broader comity between the two groups. During his Channel 2 interview, Copti said the film is “technically” Israeli because it received state funding, but he denied its figurative connection to Israel.

“I cannot represent a country that does not represent me,” he said.

Even though that statement angered the film’s Israeli supporters – “Ajami” received approximately $500,000 of its budget from the Israel Film Fund and Copti is a graduate of Israel’s Technion in Haifa – some felt the remark was affirming.

“The film represents Israel exactly,” said Israeli-American choreographer Barak Marshall. “It touches on almost all of the issues we face in Israeli society and it shows how broad the public debate is; that someone who is from Israel can negate his very connection to the state shows how wonderfully strong and alive our political culture is.”

For Dayan, art that reflects a dynamic Israeli society and its status as a pluralistic democracy is an essential strength of statehood. But on the other hand, the fact that almost every Israeli film of note eventually gets usurped by politics is frustrating.

Out in the lobby, the stars of the film gathered around a large plasma screen to watch the announcement of the best foreign film Oscar (the party was moved after hotel management discovered that several actors were underage), and there they waited with bated breath.

Katriel Schory, the director of the Israel Film Fund stood out in the crowd, with his white hair and high hopes of taking home the golden statuette. Schory didn’t mind either the director’s scathing comments or the film’s challenging subject matter.

“Everything is okay, it’s perfectly alright,” he said. “[Copti] is entitled to his view. I’m very happy with the film and we stand behind it. In Israel, there are many narratives and this is one of those narratives.”

After “Ajami” lost to Argentina’s “El secreto de sus ojos” (The Secret in their Eyes), those who were embittered by Copti’s remarks quietly delighted in the loss, secretly slapping high five’s and sending exultant text messages. But those associated with the film were visibly disappointed. 

“So we lost again,” Dayan said, mildly deflated. “But the fact is, this is our third time in a row in this category and every time we’re there. This helps us better our connection with Hollywood and we have to be there again and again.”