Unothering the Other: Ajami/The Infidel

If you’re making a film that wants to attack or explode prejudice there are two approaches. One is comic: ridicule, satire, and sheer irreverence are its means.  The other is tragic: to bring an audience into close empathy with the Other, and with other ways of life, making them as familiar as possible to us, and then treat us to the sadness, pain and horror that go along with that ‘othering’ — even, or especially, if the oppressor doing the othering is ‘self’.
I took the former route in making The Infidel, a British feature about a Muslim everyman who finds out he was born a Jew, which I directed from David Baddiel’s script. Ajami, an Israeli-Palestinian co-production (though, instructively, paid for with the kind of European subsidy and investment that UK producers are incapable of accessing), takes the latter. Eschewing the conventional Self-Other duality, Ajami evokes a complex world in which the Other is everyone and everyone becomes other. Otherness is the prevailing state of mind. The lives of ordinary young Israeli Arabs, Palestinians and Israeli Jews converge in the Ajami ghetto of Yaffa, where the challenges of living under Israeli inequality drive them deeper into danger and conflict with each other and society. Ajami complicates the ethnic Other with the economic Other, showing how money and its unequal distribution inflames tension as much as political borders. Under these conditions, people inevitably do bad things to each other even when — precisely when — acting in good faith.
No doubt the film’s power is partly a function of the much-touted admixture of the backgrounds of the co-creators — one is Israeli Jewish, the other Palestinian. But knowing your subject is not enough; that knowledge then requires a skilful and committed translation into the filmic medium. One pitfall when attempting to make the Other likeable, sympathetic, comprehensible — less ‘other’ — is a patronising sentimentalism, falling into liberal clichés of the noble victim. Ajami avoids this through a deep knowledge of its protagonists. It has authenticity and verity in spades. The story of Ajami unfolds in what Alissa Quart has called a ‘hyperlinked’ narrative — interthreading stories that reveal new aspects of each other. Its quasi documentary sense of street reality — boys together, hanging out and getting into scrapes — is reminiscent of America’s The Wire.  And like The Wire, while still bleak in its final warnings and true to political reality, it avoids both didacticism and cynicism, largely because the scenes of youthful exuberance, camaraderie and kindness are so touching, amusing, and plausible that they constitute hope enough, a potent reminder of the human. In Ajami this crucial verity is largely achieved through close, lengthy work with non-actors in workshops, preparing the ground for a shoot where the actors weren’t given the script, with each scene shot only once to preserve the freshness and reality of reactions — very hard things to do. It’s an inheritance going back via Ken Loach and neo-realism to Jean Rouch, the anthropologist who coined the term Verité and was the first to use such revelatory techniques.
But even with other technical approaches, I feel recent Israeli cinema has been distinguished by a particularly empathetic eye for empathy, for allowing us to empathise with empathetic people, people trapped in all sorts of ways, internal and external. Whether in dramas like  Broken Wings or the recent spate of penitent war films about hunkered-down, insecure young men with guns, the hope enlivened by these moving depictions of trapped humanity, of hope beyond hope, is perhaps the only kind that a generation of Israeli filmmakers feel they have access to.
With the comic approach, the narrative and performative pitfalls are the same but in the diametrically opposed direction:  how far do you go with comic  exaggeration, with an implausibility or untruth that hopes to reveal the truth of our prejudices, less through empathy than through the equally visceral and explosive mode of laughter? Here, hope hopes to be resuscitated less through the depiction of hope itself than through the reminder of our own foolishness. The danger is that, in resurrecting (and exaggerating) those stereotypes so necessary for comedy, one recycles them rather than harness their subversive power. In The Infidel we tried to keep the comic ball moving so that each character, each joke, each stereotype would undermine itself in the next scene. We choreographed a sequence of comic inversions and upsets intended to amuse and to complicate our understanding of those precious categories and false dualities so central in our imaginations : Muslim and Jew, religious and irreligious, British and immigrant, American and British. I wanted to walk a tonal line between the comic and the dramatic, between the subversive potential of the cartoon, and a humanising, plausible narrative about an everyman whose dilemma engages just enough to want to follow him through ninety-minutes — something that the pure cartoon or the sketch doesn’t need to bother with. In this, I was greatly assisted by the big, warm fuzzy heart of the star, Omid Djalili.
Both films want to disturb entrenched views, but is that their only similarity? The fact that I’ve even been asked to write this article suggests not.  Yet what can the specificities of life in Ajami, in modern Israel with its bleak immigrant realities —Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Israeli Arabs and corrupt Jewish cops — really have to do with Omid Djalili’s Infidel, a buffoonish Homer Simpson figure, a British Pakistani, an ordinary London bloke who likes football and beans on toast, a man hurled into a comic abyss of identity politics through the discovery of a hidden Jewish history? They’re totally different stories, places, historical structures. Perhaps the terms “Jew” and “Muslim” have become so calcified that despite the infinite political, religious and ethnic diversity of a billion Muslims and of a worldwide diaspora of Jews, they are fated to inhabit a single, uneasy duality in the common consciousness, no matter where in that diversity you peer.
Certainly the overdetermination of Israel and the Middle East, and the burden placed upon it by two thousand years of competing ideologies, oil and postwar colonial history, have enabled a toxic slippage of the term Jew with Israeli and Arab with Muslim. The Infidel depends on this duality for its comic mileage. In the post 9/11, post cold-war era this false Jew-Arab duality has come to embody the the battlelines upon which the global geo-political struggle is pitched. It’s worth remembering that to many Arabs, of course, Jews are more often seen as European colonisers, another kind of Other. Once again, the very malleability of that wandering, spectral identity par excellence — the Jew — seems to attract and function as a barometer for prejudice. If nothing else, therefore, the burden of that identity is one that is also full of hope for change.
Perhaps the underlying philosophical link to these wildly contrasting films is the notion that new generations are questioning those inherited prejudices upon which the continuity of communities has rested.  What remains most radical here is perhaps the vexed and shifting notion of community itself, so closely allied to the idea of the family, but also, crucially for filmmakers, to the idea of the audience.

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The Infidel will be released on dvd in August 2010.
Ajami is released on June 18th.

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