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Nominated for Best Foreign film in the last round of Oscars, 2009's Ajami explores the tensions between Jewish and Arab Israelis. It was directed by the team of Scandar Copti, an Arab Palestinian, and Yaron Shani, a Jewish Israeli. Their film is an extremely realistic portrait of conditions among the poor in Ajami, an Arab ghetto in the Israeli city of Jaffa. It's an intense emotional experience that presents a large cast of interesting and sympathetic characters -- Jews, Arabs and Christians. The tensions reflected in the film were played out in the wind-up to last year's Oscars, when Scandar Copti stated to the press that although his film is Israeli, he does not represent the state or side with it. This angered the Israeli arts bureaus that helped fund the movie. The outspoken Copti, a good actor, plays a leading role in the movie.
I've seen Israeli movies about the Palestinian issue that stumble through various viewpoints, usually from a guilty-liberal point of view. Ajami is a multi-character ensemble picture that sees the situation as a broad mural, intercutting the experiences of several protagonists and tying them together in a slightly ironic fashion. This schema brings to mind some of the more painful "liberal statement" movies of the past decade, like Babel or the plainly awful Crash, the most undeserving Best Picture of recent memory. Ajami sidesteps the pitfalls of those pictures by sticking to the factual realities of lives lived by real people, portrayed by a cast comprised almost completely of non-professionals.
The stories told in Ajami depict lives caught in a terrible game of survival in a land permeated by crime, tribal and ethnic loyalties. A business owner retaliates against tribal extortionists, with dire consequences. The tribe destroys the man's business and elects to kill his entire family, but succeeds only in slaughtering an uninvolved neighbor boy. A local tribal council reaches "justice" by forcing the surviving elder of the family, the 19 year-old Omar (Shahir Kabaha) to pay an exorbitant penalty to the tribe -- thus legitimizing the original extortion offense. The only way Omar can raise the money -- and save his family from extinction -- is to turn to crime.
Omar works in a restaurant owned by a wealthy Christian, and is carrying on a secret and completely chaste flirtation with the owner's daughter. Another employee is the even younger Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a sweet kid seeking money for a marrow transplant for his mother. A third worker is Binj (Scandar Copti), a party boy who quits when his brother, a seller of drugs, is killed. The wholly inexperienced Malek and Omar eventually end up with a package of contraband drugs, and foolishly decide to try to sell it. They don't know that they've been set up, as part of a scheme to remove Omar from the affections of the owner's daughter.
Meanwhile, Malek has bought a pocket watch on the street, not realizing that it belongs to a missing Israeli soldier. The soldier's family is beside itself with worry, and puts pressure on the missing boy's father Dando (Eran Naim) to find him. Dando is an Israeli detective who raids Binj's apartment very soon after his brother's death.
It seems everyone in Ajami has a family member slain over drugs or killed in confrontations of one kind or another. With every senseless death someone loses hope, and sets the stage for more bloodshed. The atmosphere of total corruption teaches young kids that the exercise of power and force is one's only protection, as "the strong eat the weak". Several characters face figurative brick walls of intolerance. The tribal hoods assume the right to rob and kill entire families. Anan (Hilal Kabob), the manager of the Christian restaurant, feels he has total rights over the illegals in his employ. According to tradition, the Christian restaurant owner "owns" his teenage daughter. He allows her no associations with boys and expects her to abide by his harsh interpretation of her duty to family honor. Dando is an honest cop but circumstances lead the innocent Malek to believe him to be a criminal, and when drug deals are involved nobody can trust anybody. Poor Omar thinks he will be the one to get rich when a packet of drugs falls into his hands. He's a victim of his own ignorance.
Near the bottom of this mountain of misery is Nasri (Fouad Habash), Omar's artistic kid brother who begs him to stay home, begs him not to sell the drugs and finally forces Omar to take him along. Omar draws elaborate comic panels illustrating his beloved family and the older brother he worships. Nasri's thoughts are used as a partial narration, even though he knows little of what's going on.
Dando, an ugly-mug cop, is definitely not a villain. He delights in his toddler daughter, who insists that he be the one to change her diaper, and tells him he's cute when she pours her bathwater over his head.
Filmed in a different way, Ajami might be a depressing "no way out" tract, like the fatalistic Italian film Gomorrah, another "ironic ensemble" picture about a criminal subculture eating away at a country's soul. Directors Copti and Shani's characters are so vivid and sympathetic that we never see them as pawns in a filmmaker's annihilating melodrama. Although our emotional response is strong, we leave the film with a feeling of understanding, not depression over a preordained tragedy. The key advertising art shows Omar embracing Nasri, and it's not a cheat ... that's our final impression of the movie.
If Ajami has a transcendent value, it's that it puts a human dimension on tensions in Israel. Too much of what we read and hear seems intent on stampeding public opinion toward hatred of all things Arab or Muslim. Ajami reminds us that people everywhere want the same things, a right to survive and a decent chance to live ... and that demonizing individual nationalities and faiths only divides the world into opposing camps.
Kino International offers a contemporary classic with their Blu-ray of Ajami, a superior picture that easily connects with Western audiences. The HD image is bright and flawless; the movie was shot on 35mm film (or so says the IMDB) and holds up even in its many night scenes. I've seen my share of slipshod Israeli filmmaking -- I worked for Cannon Films for a couple of years -- and it's exciting to see this kind of world-class cinema coming from that country.
The disc extras include a large selection of deleted scenes, a trailer and a stills gallery; the DTS audio is uncompressed HD quality. The careful subtitles tell us when characters are speaking in Hebrew or an Arab dialect.
The lengthy featurette The Story of the Actors is much more than a publicity item. Its interviews examine the film's interesting implementation of its non-professional cast. Ever since Roberto Rossellini's early films, critics have debated the trade-off that results from casting non-pros, which may be "real" to the film's environment but are often woefully inadequate as actors. Ajami invited hundreds of amateurs into acting classes designed to allow them to shake loose of inhibitions and self-conscious behaviors, while retaining their natural personalities. The idea is that they end up "behaving" instead of "emoting". Ajami would seem to vindicate the method -- perhaps a trained director can spot flaws in the performances, but I can't. We're told that the actors weren't given scripts, and were instead directed to perform without knowing what was happening beyond the immediate moment. It sounds like a demanding but potentially rewarding method -- if a recognizable actor appeared, the illusion would collapse.
I highly recommend Ajami, a tense, entertaining movie about an appallingly misunderstood corner of the world. It's a rare thing when a suspense thriller honestly addresses the roots of discontent in the world. That's worth repeating, in the present-day glut of mindless aggression fantasies like The Expendables ... It's a rare thing when a suspense thriller really addresses the roots of discontent in the world.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ajami Blu-ray rates:
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