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 Tel Aviv Jew), “Ajami,” which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, 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 non-professional actors and handheld cameras, is to experience this seething city at the speed of life.
The 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-Arab dispute.
So Omar (Shahir Kabaha) appeals to a well-off, well-connected, Christian Arab restaurant owner, Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), who 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 naïve 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—illustrative 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 arrive at 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.
“Ajami” opens at the The Loft Cinema May 14, with a special screening presented by the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival and the Loft on Saturday, May, 15 at 7 p.m. For more information, call 795-0844 or go to www.loftcinema.com.
Michael Fox is a film critic in San Francisco.