It was probably inevitable that a film like Ajami would come along—an Israeli/Palestinian collaboration, directed by a Christian Israeli Arab (Scandar Copti) and a Jewish Israeli (Yaron Shani) about a group of Christians and Muslims in a small Arab neighborhood, the titular Ajami, in one of the oldest port cities in the world, Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Everything in the film itself, from the setting and characters to the plot, to all of the meta-aspects including the directors and production, feels like the cinematic culmination of the conflict that’s been raging in that part of the world for so long. It produces a melting pot of socio-cultural conflict that, in true artistic fashion, manages to boil everything down to the all-too-human people caught up in it all.
The story is as complex as the conflict itself. Following in the tradition of films like Rossellini’s Paisan or, more recently, films like Garrone’s Gomorrah, Ajami follows five distinct storylines. Unlike in those films, however, here they’re intricately connected, though told in a non-linear fashion. It begins when Nasri’s (Fouad Habesh) neighbor is killed in a drive-by, which is the consequence of his uncle shooting and killing a member of a powerful crime family. A judge settles the dispute by declaring that Nasri’s poor family must pay tens-of-thousands of dollars, that they don’t have, to make things right. This dilemma provokes the older son, Omar (Shahir Kabaha), to begin selling drugs.
Likewise, Malek is a young man, working with Omar for Abu Elias in a restaurant, who needs money to pay for his mother’s cancer surgery. Omar also happens to be in love with Abu Elias’ daughter, Hadir (Ranin Karim), which causes a problem considering Elias’ family is Christian and Omar is a Muslim. Binj, played by co-direct Copti, is a cook in a restaurant given drugs to hold by his brother after a dispute over noisy sheep results in a neighbor being stabbed to death. This opens the opportunity for Omar and Malek to sell the drugs to get the money they need. The final story involves a cop named Dando (Eran Naim) whose family is devastated after his brother goes missing. These storylines all intersect in the finale involving a drug deal that goes terribly wrong.
In spite of the film’s complex structure, the outstanding feature of the production is how down-to-earth and lucid the characters, relationships and action is. Copti and Shani did a smart thing by demarcating the sections by “chapter” title cards, which explicitly signal the shift in perspective focus. The greatest strength of this approach, as with many films of this type, is the richly textured portrayal that it’s able to present. There is no way to simplistically reduce and explicate the Middle Eastern conflict, as factors of ethnicity, religion, culture, and nationality are too densely entangled. Therefore, it only makes sense that the perspective of those inside should be equally as dense and entangled. Yet the strident fluidity of the pacing and the genuine drama underlying it all speaks to the universal language of fiction.
In truth, Ajami side-steps directly addressing the conflict itself. This was clearly a conscious decision on the part of Copti and Shani as on the DVD there’s a deleted scene of Binj, Omar and others sitting around discussing the situation. That scene perhaps too directly laid out the core theme of the film that, at the end of the day, religion, ethnicity, nationality, and everything else takes a back seat to the basic needs and desires of humanity. Even the frequent misunderstandings, due to the mix of Hebrew and Arabic languages, seem to stand as a metonym for the idea that such things stand in as smokescreens that hide our commonalities. For the most part, Copti and Shani simply allow these elements to be part of the background texture without interfering in drama and characters.
In the tradition of neorealism—and films like this and Gomorrah may be said to mark the rebirth of that movement—Copti and Shani elected to cast amateur actors. On the DVD there’s a fascinating 20-minute documentary, almost as good as the film itself, that chronicles the acting class that was ultimately utilized as a casting pool. It reveals that, to many of them, the film wasn’t an exercise in acting but in simply being. Many speak to how emotionally and physically draining many scenes were, and how they became so lost in the characters that the barrier between themselves and character completely dissolved. Given the spectacular results, as everyone in the cast is phenomenal, future directors could learn a thing or two from Copti and Shani’s methods.
If the film’s to be really faulted it lies in two arenas. One, the visuals and direction are, for the most part, rather bland and rooted in the modern “art” of shaky-cam, although it’s far less annoying here than in other films that use it much more haphazardly. At least here the drama warrants that aesthetic of uncertainty and instability. The editing, however, largely makes up for this, and given how easily the film could’ve become a structural mess it could even be called virtuosic. The second flaw is rooted in the nature of the shocking ending. While it does provide for a genuine surprise, it ultimately comes across as cheap and manipulative while insubstantial. While Copti and Shani may have been going for a message about the interconnectedness of our lives, it seems more like the film insists that tragedy can just as easily be a matter of pure coincidence.
Ajami is a very good but not quite great film that feels a bit like an underachievement. The film was, however, nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film and marked the third year in a row Israel had received a nomination. It’s probably not surprising that a country filled with such turmoil would start producing riveting art, but I can’t help but feel like we’re all still waiting for that masterpiece to come along that will encapsulate it all. Ajami has its moments, but perhaps too often pulls its punches at the wrong moments to legitimately lay claim to being that all-important masterpiece.