MADELEINE BRAND, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The Israeli movie "Ajami" begins with a murder.
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SIEGEL: It's not in Gaza or in the West Bank and it's not a Jew killing an Arab or vice versa. It's a crime in a neighborhood where that's not uncommon.
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SIEGEL: "Ajami" is the name of the neighborhood. It's in Jaffa, the old town next to the modern Tel Aviv.
YARON SHANI: It's like a very small neighborhood with so many people and cultures and religions. You have the Muslims and the Christians and Jews. You have criminals next to lawyers.
SIEGEL: That's Yaron Shani, one of the two men who wrote, directed and edited "Ajami" together. It's a remarkable collaboration. Shani is a Jew. His partner, Scandar Copti, is a Palestinian Israeli and Arab Christian who is from Ajami, and they worked on this film for eight years.
SHANI: It's like we were married, you know, for eight years because we spent, like, 12, 14 hours a day together. We felt like we're two soldiers fighting against everybody.
SIEGEL: The result of that collaboration is a brew of subplots unlike any other Israeli film. It's about an invisible minority: Israeli Arabs. There's more Arabic than Hebrew spoken. And the way that Shani and Copti made it was unusual: an amateur cast with scenes written and shot in sequence, and at every step, even decision about writing and editing was agreed to by the two of them.
SCANDAR COPTI: So sometimes we spent, like, three days arguing about a small scene, if it should go to this direction or to the other direction. But I think that this is the thing that made this film so wide, you know. It's not only one point of view of one person. It's two persons discussing things artistically, politically, in order to come to this result.
SIEGEL: There's a conflict. There's a dispute between a Palestinian family in Ajami and a Bedouin family that, I guess, wanted protection money from their clan, and the dispute eventually goes to a traditional Palestinian judge.
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COPTI: So this is something that is still common all over the Middle East and especially in Israel. It's an alternative juridical system the Arabs have, not all of them, mostly in the south. And what we did actually, we did a real court. We brought three real people who knows what they do. All the rest of the people you see in the scene, we told them that it's - we are a documentary team, and we came to document, sort of, how like this.
SIEGEL: So you mean, so a lot of the people who are witnessing this - what amounts to an informal civil trial of a dispute - most of them think it's a real civil dispute.
COPTI: Yes. Most of the people who are sitting there, they are reacting with real emotions because they came with one of the sides. They are defending their uncle or the people who are close to them. Of course, our actors, Omar and Abu-Lias, they didn't know nothing. They didn't know where it will go to.
SIEGEL: When you speak of the actors, you know, the actors who are playing the parts of Omar and Abu-Lias, these also are people who are new to the whole business of acting in a movie, yes?
COPTI: Well, actually, the film has more than 150 characters. And not only Omar and Abu-Lias, all the characters in this film are portrayed by people who come from exactly the same background like the characters, but because they identify so much with the subject, with the characters, and because they went through a whole year of exercises and role-playing, we only had to put them in a real situation, and the minute it happened, they forgot that it was a film, and they developed real feelings.
SIEGEL: What was it like making a film that is mostly in Arabic, to be shown as an Israeli film and to be shown to Israeli audiences?
SHANI: Well, I can say that in the commercial aspect, all the TV channels didn't want to have anything to do with us because they thought that the script was too complicated, and they thought that the Israeli audience will not go to see a film in Arabic. The public funds are much more open, and they gave us a little bit of money to start with.
SIEGEL: The public funds being, you mean, being the government.
SHANI: The Israel Film Fund, and we had 40 percent of the budget from them, and the rest, actually, we got from Germany. So the film is a co-production between Israel and Germany.
COPTI: But this project was so hard from the first place because nobody believed in us. Nobody wanted to do it. Nobody wanted to have anything to do with it because everybody told us, come on, you're crazy. You want to make a movie with more than 100 non-actors without giving them text, with two cameras and shooting it chronologically. Are you nuts? Go away.
SHANI: But the thing is that when we released the film in Israel, well, first of all, it won the most important academy awards in Israel. And then when it was released in Israel, it became a hit. People were writing about it spontaneously. You could hear about people discussing it in their own homes. And I think that it's also the first Israeli feature film that brought Arab audiences into the cinemas. So it was really amazing for us as filmmakers to experience that.
SIEGEL: For the two of you, what was the - apart from the craft of making a film, what was it that you learned from your involvement in "Ajami" and the neighborhood, or what was it that you learned about Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel that you didn't know before?
COPTI: You know, we learned a lot. For me, it was a great opportunity to detach myself from all this crazy place and have the opportunity to watch it from the outside.
SIEGEL: You mean the place that you had actually grown up in.
COPTI: Yes, Ajami.
SIEGEL: And Yaron Shani, what was the learning experience for you?
SHANI: Well, for me, it's something that we will need a whole hour for me to explain what I've been through in this project, but I can say that in the process, I learned Arabic, I got to know hundreds of people that I would never get to meet. And of course I found myself a very unique, artistic expression. And I became much more aware to what it is to be a human being, you know, what is the value of human lives and how I should respect that as a filmmaker.
SIEGEL: Do the two of you have another multi-year project that you're now going to embark on that you can emerge from when you're both 50 or so and talk to us about?
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SHANI: Well, yes, but it's going to be when we are 60, not 50. Yeah, it will take a little bit more time.
SIEGEL: Well, Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti, thank you both very much for talking with us.
SHANI: Thank you.
COPTI: Thank you.
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SIEGEL: And their movie, "Ajami," has made the first cut for an Academy Award. It's one of the nine foreign films that will be winnowed down to five in the competition for Best Foreign Language Film.