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Israel's Oscar-Nominated Film Looks at Irreconcilable Divide in Mixed Arab and Jewish Neighborhood

Israeli film "Ajami" is about crime and violence in a tough neighborhood of Jaffa

Israeli film "Ajami" is about crime and violence in a tough neighborhood of Jaffa

This year, the films nominated for a foreign language Oscar include Ajami, an Israeli movie that features non-professional Israeli actors -- both Arab and Jewish. The film is set in Ajami, a neighborhood of Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv. The community is a mix of Jews and Arabs and is known for violent crime and drug-dealing. The movie never mentions the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the divide between Jews and Arabs is an ever-present theme.

From a distance, Jaffa is a beautiful seaside community. It blends Arab and Jewish cultures. But although they live side by side, Jews and Arabs never mix and occasionally they collide.

Real life in Jaffa's Ajami neighborhood is much like it appears in Ajami, the film. Crime is a part of daily life, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a never-disappearing backdrop.

Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew who co-directed the film with an Israeli Arab, says Ajami sought to expose human nature, specifically why people hurt one another. "We wanted to show what it is to be a human being in conflict with another human being. It's not a story about good side and bad side or evil side and just side. It's a story about human beings who are understanding reality in a totally different way," he said.

It took the directors and a cast of non-professional actors eight years to make the film. In it, a series of disconnected subplots dealing with desperation and conflict occur within the same community.

One of the stories involves Malek, a young Palestinian who sneaks into Israel from the West Bank to work so he can pay for a lifesaving operation for his mother. Ibrahim Frege plays Malek. "If we look into every individual person in the film, their stories and we live their life, we could really feel and understand society. It is not just our society, but every society," Malek said.

Jaffa native Amal Abu Ramadan plays Malek's mother. Like the others, she volunteered to act in the film without pay for the chance to perform in a project she believed in. "It really reflects reality," she said. "This is why I really liked the film. Because of that I wanted to participate in the film and support it."

Frege says his role is really the story of his life. Since he was 12, he has worked as a gardener and a farmhand to support his family. He hopes the film will promote understanding. "I want this movie to send a message to both sides, that Jewish society should not look at the Arab as a killer or as a drug dealer, or as an evil human being. At the same time, the Arab should not look at Jews as killers who seek to do harm," he said.

This could be the first time an Israeli film wins an Oscar. Ajami's filmmakers say winning would be nice, but showing the reality behind the stories is what matters most.