Ajami (2009)

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Ajami (2009)  

Written and directed by: Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani
Starring: Shahir Kabaha, Ibrahim Frege, Fouad Habash, Youssef Sahwani, Ranin Karim, Eran Naim, Scandar Copti  
Run Time: 120 minutes
In Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles

Ajami, an Israeli crime drama that has won many awards, including a special distinction award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and a nomination for an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Film, 2009, deserves all the kudos it has received.

Shot in the Ajami neighborhood of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ajami explores the byzantine interactions of several resident Jewish, Christian and Muslim families. In this realistic portrait of lives filled with reflexive prejudices and impulsive vendettas, no family is left unscathed, yet all share a common humanity.

Arab-Israeli Scandar Copti and Jewish-Israeli Yaron Shani collaborated on this independent drama, their first feature length film. Although all the actors live in Ajami, none had ever studied acting or had appeared in a film. They were not given scripts. There were no second takes.

Often an actor had no idea where the scene was heading, causing real and raw shock and emotion to emerge. The cinematography (well done by Boaz Yehonaton Yaakov), done in documentary style using two cameras, adds to the film’s realism and intensity.

Although Ajami was shot in chronological order, after editing, we see the film out of sequence, where, as in Crash, Rashamon and Babel, the same scenes are presented from different points of view. We discover that we may have first jumped to incorrect conclusions, as the characters sometimes did. With the opportunity to reconsider the scenes, we gain new perspectives from previously hidden information.

I found it difficult at first to differentiate among the players and to follow the sequence of events. I hope that was the writers’ intention. The varying sects are very similar in looks, action and their desire to love and protect their own. Unfortunately, their similitude extends to the way in which violence has overtaken their reason.

Teenaged Nasri (Fouad Habash) and his Muslim family fall apart after an uncle kills a Bedouin crime boss who had sought protection money from him. In retribution, the crime boss’ family plans to kill Nasri’s younger brother, Omar (Shahir Kabaha), but mistakenly murders a neighbor instead.

Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), a Christian restaurateur and community leader, steps in to negotiate between the Bedouins and Omar’s family. In a scene out of Lawrence of Arabia, the warring groups sit in a tent and agree on the price Omar must pay to end the dispute. Omar doesn’t have the money, so he decides foolishly to raise it by dealing drugs.

Abu Elais’ daughter, Hadir (Ranin Karim), who works at her father’s restaurant, has fallen in love with Omar. Omar, a Muslim, and Hadir a Christian, have as much chance for happiness as the original “pair of star-cross’d lovers.”

Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a 16-year-old illegal Palestinian immigrant who is trying to help pay for his mother’s medical treatment, works in the restaurant as well.

Malek and Omar’s friend, rich Palestinian Binj (acted by co-director Scandar Copti), a suspected drug dealer in love with an Israeli woman, knifes a Jewish neighbor over a noise complaint. He is arrested by Dando (Eran Naim), an Israeli-Jewish police detective, who is anxious about the fate of his missing soldier brother.

The warring among all the groups is more about poverty than about politics. There are no polemics; no one talks about which God is the “true God.” This is not a “happily ever after” movie. Rather, Ajami is a powerful crime drama in which all are heroes and all are villains.

(c)Emily S. Mendel 2010. All Rights Reserved.

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