Shahir Kabaha, star of the Oscar-nominated movie 'Ajami,' keeps his day job

By Howard Schneider
Sunday, February 21, 2010

The star of "Ajami," Israel's latest Oscar-nominated film, comes to work in a white T-shirt and track suit, his hair freshly gelled, his near future holding the prospect of a trip to Los Angeles.

But Shahir Kabaha is not arriving on a set to rehearse lines; he's pulling into his father's bakery in downtown Jaffa, where he barely has time for a proper conversation. The amateur cast of "Ajami," after all, may have upset some long-held assumptions about Israeli cinema -- chief among them that films about Arabs, in Arabic, won't sell to a Jewish audience -- but nobody has quit their day jobs.

"I've got 150 burekas in the oven, and my mind now is on that oven," Kabaha says as he shuttles between the kitchen and counter of his father's store, which does a brisk trade in the hearty stuffed pastries. The store is called Ba-Li Burekas, a name over which the family disagrees. Like much of Jaffa's multiethnic quilt, it is a jumble, a Hebrew name on an Arab-owned store, that in English could mean either "I want a bureka," or "I need a bureka."

Either way, "I don't want them to burn," the 25-year-old baker/movie star said.

"Ajami" (which opened at Washington's Avalon Theatre on Friday) is the third Israeli movie in three years to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, a trend read here as a sign of maturity in an art form that has often been used to mythologize the Jewish homeland but more recently to plumb the society's stresses and strains. The three nominated films have that critical eye in common.

Set in the predominantly Arab Jaffa neighborhood of the same name, "Ajami" explores ethnic, religious and social tensions -- not so much the larger one of competing Arab and Jewish homelands, but the sort that keep Muslim and Christian Arabs from marrying, that cast Bedouin clans as controlling gangsters, and that leave a Jewish family uncertain whether a missing relative has been kidnapped by Palestinians or absorbed into the world of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

The two previously nominated dealt with Israel's conflicts in Lebanon. "Waltz With Bashir" (2008) is an unusual war movie that begins with a former Israeli soldier in psychotherapy. "Beaufort" (2007) is a war movie in which one side never fires back: The Israeli soldiers manning a mountaintop post at Lebanon's Crusader-era Beaufort castle don't really have an enemy to fire on as they absorb mortar strikes from unseen Hezbollah militants and count the days until they can go home.

But the films share something else as well, says Nahman Ingber, a film critic and historian at Tel Aviv University: a quiet, non-moralizing introspection that stands out from the country's rackety, broken calliope of discourse.

"In Israel there are so many problems, and the cinema is learning to reflect them in a very real way," Ingber says, drawing a comparison between the way World War II was depicted in American movies with the raw portrayals that emerged after the Vietnam conflict. If directors like Menachem Golan drew fodder from, for example, the heroic 1976 Israeli commando raid that rescued passengers on a hijacked airliner in Uganda ("Operation Thunderbolt"), the ambiguities of the Lebanon conflict or the tangle of Arab-Israeli relations are now prominent.

"These are younger people making movies, and they ask the questions that you have to ask," he says. "Is war always necessary? Do we deal with political situations properly?"

"Ajami" in particular has a bit of a real-life fairy-tale quality surrounding its production and success -- a Jewish-Arab collaboration, with amateurs from a hardscrabble neighborhood who put on a show that catches Hollywood's eye.

The germinal idea came from director Yaron Shani who, as a film student at Tel Aviv University, imagined doing an urban crime drama with a cast drawn from the streets and placed in roles similar to their real lives -- cops playing cops, for example.

The idea gathered dust for a decade until he met Skandar Copti, a Jaffa resident and engineer who had entered an amateur film contest Shani was helping organize.

The two became friends, but more than that, Copti gave Shani entree to the most intimate sides of life among the roughly 1.5 million Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship -- from the clan violence that gets settled through blood money negotiations, to the chronic efforts to avoid contact with the Israeli police. It is a society that is dependent on the Jewish majority -- Jaffan merchants typically speak Hebrew and their Arabic is sprinkled with Hebrew phrases -- but whose members feel neither trusted nor equal even though they share the same passport and vote in the same Knesset elections.

Copti and Shani revived Shani's earlier idea but set it in the Ajami neighborhood, and instead of a classic whodunit turned it into a sociological puzzle as well -- a combination that made it a hit despite the language barrier. The film is largely in Arabic, with Hebrew subtitles.

Shani, who grew up in a rural village north of Tel Aviv, says the focus on the larger Arab-Israeli conflict -- debate over establishment of a Palestinian state, the continued military occupation of the West Bank area where 2.5 million Palestinians live, the situation in the Gaza Strip -- has obscured the lives of the Israeli Arabs, a community with which he had little contact growing up.

"The film is about a society that is segregated, where people live in bubbles," Shani says at his home in Ashdod, a coastal city south of Tel Aviv. "Inside the bubble everything seems absolute and everything is coherent." It's a logic in which people are willing to risk their lives for others in the same space, but will "kill, in a most savage way," those from the outside, he adds.

Though the film is dark in tone, it has provided a bit of a lift for Jaffa, an ancient port annexed into Tel Aviv after Israel's founding. The town has been branded as crime-ridden, but is also a destination for a good Arab meal or an uncrowded day at the beach.

The area's Arab residents seem somewhat conflicted over the content -- at once lauding the film's realism, as if someone finally took an interest in how they live, and uncomfortable at the airing of what some see as the Arab community's dirty laundry.

In the movie, Kabaha plays the oldest son of a family embroiled in a criminal dispute. Crime and drug use have been a problem in the community, but "the situation in Jaffa today is different," says Mohammed Kabaha, the cast member's father. "Eighty percent of the people here have businesses and jobs. They have developed."

Still, the Oscar buzz is hard to miss. Patrons at the bakery reach out to slap the younger Kabaha's hand, and on the street you might just bump into the father of the musician who composed the film's music.

When he was approached about a small part in the movie, Michelle Copti said the idea of a year's worth of acting sessions -- the amateur cast role-played 2 1/2 hours a week-- did not dissuade him.

"The director is the son of my sister, so I just did what he said."

"Adjami" (unrated, 120 minutes, in Arabic and Hebrew with subtitles), at the Avalon. Read Ann Hornaday's review in the Feb. 19 Weekend section.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company