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ISRAEL: Statement by Oscar nominee Scandar Copti, 'Ajami' co-director, creates a stir

March 7, 2010 |  8:40 am

Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti
Israelis are hoping to wake up Monday morning with an Oscar, though the die-hards will be watching the Academy Awards ceremony live, in the middle of the night, Israeli time.

"Beaufort," "Waltz With Bashir" and now "Ajami" -- for the third year running, Israel is represented in the foreign-film category.

But a statement to the contrary by the film's Arab-Israeli co-director has caused some upset.

"Technically, the movie represents Israel. I am a citizen of Israel but do not represent it. I cannot represent a country that does not represent me," said "Ajami" co-director Scandar Copti in a pre-Oscar press conference in Los Angeles on Saturday, adding, "I am not the Israel national team."

Copti is a Christian Arab, a citizen of Israel and a native of Ajami, the Jaffa neighborhood spotlighted in the film he co-directed with Yaron Shani. He has criticized Israeli policies toward its Arab minority.

Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat was sorry to hear this. The film was produced using funds from the state he now renounces, Livnat said. "Without the state's support,  Copti wouldn't be walking the red carpet tonight," she said, adding that others who had a part in making the film considered themselves part of the state and were proud to represent it.

A group called the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel says the filmmaker should take it back -- or the movie's nomination should be canceled. If he has a problem with the country, well, he should have thought about it before accepting support for his movie.

Israeli director and producer Menahem Golan was annoyed by Copti's statement. The movie had the support of the Israeli film establishment and government, he said, and at the very least, Copti should respect his Israeli co-director." Golan himself was nominated four times for movies he filmed in Jaffa, which he called "our greatest studio."

Yes, there's something about Jaffa, a Mediterranean coastal town with a mellow groove but also an inner-city hiss and sizzle. Once again, someone tried to settle a score with a gun Friday night. And once again, hundreds of Jaffa residents demonstrated against the use of force -- police force, that is, which they charge is excessive and hurts law-abiding citizens instead of criminals.

Omar Siksik, an Ajami resident, is a City Council member. His daughter Nisreen stars in the movie now vying for an award. He's proud of the film's success but says, "We live the movie on a daily basis." Siksik says he hopes the movie that reveals the pain of crime so nakedly also facilitates a change in policy that will improve the neighborhood's predicament. He'd like to see the film's success change things on the ground. The director's comments express the plight of Israel's Arabs, he says, who feel alienated and threatened.

Both directors, the two producers and others who worked on the film headed for Hollywood last week. Not Ziad Jabareen, though. He stayed home. When a radio reporter stopped him on the street Sunday, by chance, while interviewing people about the movie, Jabareen explained that he was among locals featured in the movie. He wasn’t in L.A. because his character, Yehya, was killed off only two minutes into "Ajami." Walking down the street Sunday carrying his shopping, the teenage Jabareen said he understood Copti's comments. "He's achieving success, enjoying glory, but where does that get him? He's not feeling the one thing he wants to -- belonging."

Scandar Copti's comments have angered some and saddened others in Israel, where one thing everyone seems to share in common is the enjoyment of an argument.  In that way, Copti appears to be an authentic representation of Israel -- like it or not.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo: "Ajami" co-directors Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti at an Oscar press conference March 5, 2010. Credit:  Gabriel Bouys / AFP/Getty Images

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