Ajami

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, 2009 Academy Awards

It’s easy to be cynical about the foreign-language Academy Award given its history of rewarding pretty, heartwarming vapidity. Ajami, which was nominated in 2009 might sound at first more like a publicity gimmick with laudable social goals than a legitimate work of art: a film co-directed by an Israeli, Yaron Shani, and a Palestinian, Scandar Copti, that tries to capture the two communities’ tormented coexistence. But Ajami is neither pretty nor heartwarming: It begins and ends with scenes of young boys shot down on the street, both of them ending up as cruel reminders of a stupid misunderstanding.

Shot in what might be called the ‘international style’ of independent film – a hand-held, eye-level camera, mostly in medium close-up – Ajami has a large cast that mixes Israeli professionals and neighbourhood recruits. The filmmakers capture the streets, living rooms and restaurants of Jaffa in near-documentary detail, and this pays off at the level of character complexity and social context. Inexplicable and unforgivable things happen in Ajami: We see an Israeli cop about to shoot an unarmed underage suspect in the head, and an Arab man stab a Jewish neighbour in the heart during an insignificant street argument. Shani and Copti’s central strategy is to show us these crimes and then, through their back-and-forth chronology, explain how they happened.

In no sense is this movie some kind of lily-livered apologetic for violence on either side; indeed, in depicting all their characters as human beings with family lives and recognizable wants and needs, Shani and Copti also depict them as people in the grip of a near-hopeless pathology. If there are two central characters in Ajami, they are Omar (Shahir Kabaha), a teenager living in Tel Aviv’s Jaffa neighbourhood whose family is deeply in debt to a dangerous Bedouin crime family, and Dando (Eran Naim), a stocky Tel Aviv cop and family man whose brother has gone missing in action in the Palestinian territories. Neither is an ideological or religious zealot; neither is consumed with hatred for the other side. But long years of war and hatred have taught them where to direct their anger.

Omar and Dando will eventually collide during a drug bust gone wrong in a Tel Aviv parking garage, an event we see multiple times from multiple perspectives. Along the way, Omar’s next-door neighbour is shot by the Bedouins, his cosmopolitan friend Binj – an Arab who plans to move in with his Jewish girlfriend – meets an ambiguous end after a police raid, and Dando’s missing brother’s personal effects turn up on Jaffa’s black market. Throw in a sinister Christian-Arab godfather figure, a wide-eyed kid from the territories who’s trying to raise money for his mom’s bone marrow transplant, and the cops who rule Ajami with an iron fist, and you’ve got a multistrand potboiler worthy of an Israeli Dickens.

– Andrew O’Hehir, Salon

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