Even by the high standards set by Israeli films in the last few years, Ajami is a knockout. A crackling urban drama shot with unblinking realism and steeped in astringent Middle East irony, Ajami sinks its hooks in the first minute and never lets up.
Written, directed and edited by Scandar Copti (a Palestinian citizen of Israel) and Yaron Shani (a Jew from Tel Aviv), Ajami takes its name — and its intersecting plotlines — from the Jaffa neighborhood where Jews and Arabs live in uneasy proximity. Melting pot? Try boiling pot.
The story unfolds from a succession of characters’ perspectives, augmented at times with flashbacks, that grant us entrée to a number of worlds. The kinetic effect of this 21st century neo-realism, achieved via nonprofessional actors and handheld cameras, is to experience this seething city at the speed of life.
Ajami (which lost the Oscar this year for best foreign language film) begins with a bang, with a child gunned down on the street by a duo on a motorcycle. This gutless revenge killing turns out to be a case of mistaken identity; the intended target was an innocent Arab teenager who’s been inadvertently thrown into the middle of an Arab-Bedouin dispute.
So Omar (Shahir Kabaha), the young patriarch of one of the families involved in the inter-clan feud, appeals for help to a well-connected, Christian Arab restaurant owner, Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani). Elias arranges a cease-fire with the aggrieved Bedouin gang and a meeting to arrange a settlement. The price is more than Omar can pay, leaving him susceptible to illegal and dangerous schemes to raise the cash.
One of the workers in Abu Elias’s kitchen is a Palestinian, Malek (Ibrahim Frege), who’s even younger and more naive than Omar. He also has money worries, for his mother urgently needs major surgery.
The first hour of Ajami is devoted to the fraught circumstances of these Arab youths, but their motivations and machinations are designed not merely to keep the drama percolating but to illuminate the hierarchy within the Arab community. Malek, who is in Israel illegally and has no rights, is at the bottom of the pecking order — an illustration of the callous way in which the wider Arab world views the Palestinians.
In due time, Ajami introduces Jewish characters whose paths collide with the Arabs we’ve already met. Copti and Shani accomplish this far more organically and believably than films like Traffic and Babel handled their interrelated character arcs, partly because none of the actors are familiar (let alone famous), but largely because the story feels as if it’s springing from the streets before our eyes.
The overriding sensation of the film is imminent and omnipresent violence, though assuredly not in the quasi-entertaining, nerve-wracking manner of a Tarantino flick, where a scene might gratuitously skip from conversation to fusillade at any moment. Every shooting and stabbing in Ajami is the surface manifestation of the perpetually stressed characters’ churning suspicion and frustration.
Speaking of suspicion, the filmmakers employ misdirection with great skill to encourage incorrect first impressions and wrong conclusions — that is, for the viewer to experience what it’s like to be Arab or Jewish in a mistrustful world.
To be clear, Ajami isn’t interested in violence — that is, the romantic fatalism or macho glamour that most movies offer — but its crushing consequences, and the ripples of mania and revenge that ensue. The source of the tension, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, is rarely alluded to for the simple reason that Israeli and Palestinian moviegoers know the backdrop.
Frankly, it would be easier (though less compelling) to watch Ajami if it were set somewhere other than Israel. For this remarkably constructed story is also a catalog of the residue of bitterness and grief on both sides, along with the thwarted potential and wasted resources.
Michael Fox writes from San Francisco.
Ajami opens May 7 at the Edina Cinema, 50th Street and France Avenue South.
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