Ajami is now playing at the Kendall Landmark.
Ajami is set in the titular neighborhood in Jaffa, a rough, largely Arab part of the city that will be familiar to anyone who knows the post-World War II films of Vittorio De Sica, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, or Fernando Meirelles’ City of God. That is to say that you can put languages, skin color and cultures aside—a slum is a slum the world over, and like post-War Rome, Hell’s Kitchen in the 1970s, or the ghettos of Rio, Ajami conforms to the standards of all such places: the police are an afterthought, disputes are settled by clan law, and the differences of race and religion seem mostly superceded by the commonality of poverty and desperation.
The story begins when Omar’s uncle impulsively shoots a young hood looking for protection money, and war is declared on Omar’s family. A drive-by shooting targeting Omar gets a young neighbor instead, and Omar seeks a sit-down with the head of the hood’s family and a local Muslim judge. Nevermind the superficial trappings of the meeting—the headwraps, the frequent refrains of phrases like “God be praised”—this is as cutthroat a shakedown as anything in The Godfather or Goodfellas. The judge rules that Omar and his family can make the original shooting of the young hood right by paying an exorbitant price. Failure to pay will compound the amount and, presumably, lead to their eventual murders. They consider running away, but to where? Money is the only answer. Money, in this world, equals life, and Omar will spend the rest of the film finding his way to a possible solution.
Omar’s story is just one of four main plot lines woven through the screenplay, and they are handled deftly. The plot jumps backward and forward in time, overlaps, and replays scenes from different perspectives, and you can only admire the nerve it must have taken for co-writers, -directors and -editors Yaron Shani and Scander Copti to even attempt such complexities (Shani has only one other film credit I can find, and Copti is credited here for the first time). No matter how far afield the story seems to stray, all roads will eventually lead back to Omar and his struggle to save his family.
Ajami, which opened in Boston in February 26 and is nominated for an Oscar in Best Foreign Language Film, is a joint Israeli/Palestinian production. Now, if you’re an American who’s rarely—or never—heard anything about either of those two countries that didn’t include the phrases “suicide bombing,” “bulldozed settlement” or “missile strike,” you might be excused for expecting a story that examines the basic conflict, probably in some very somber way. Ajami, however, isn’t that sort of film. One internet user described it as “an Israeli Crash,” but that’s exactly what it isn’t. There isn’t any ponderousness or preachiness to be found here. Oh, the world needs those sorts of weighty films, I suppose, but what’s really striking about Ajami—and this would be notable in any film dealing with this sort of subject matter, but is all the more so here, considering the relative inexperience of the duo who created it—is the degree to which it succe–s in avoiding the many, many traps it might have fallen into: cliché, didacticism, stereotypes.
While world leaders haggle over negotiating tables, trying in apparent vain to stop the bloodshed in the Middle East, on the streets of places like Ajami people are consumed with the much more pressing demands of just getting by. Reviewers have made much of the roiling cultural and religious conflicts in the film, but to me they just play around the edges. Ultimately, if the film has anything pointed to say about the cultural conflicts in Israel, it might be that, on an everyday basis, when everyday people are just trying to put food on the table and navigate their not-always-pleasant realities, the larger issues don’t have that much relevance.
All of which is to say that Ajami is just as much a tragedy as the continued ethnic strife we read about in the papers. But it’s a small-scale tragedy, told on a human level. Most of the actors in the film are non-professionals drawn from the streets of Ajami and the surrounding areas, and they, along with the handheld camera work, lend an air of seamless naturalism that feels so honest and inevitable it never occurs to you to notice it. Or maybe we’re just too violently plunged into the story—the first scene is the mistaken shooting of the neighbor, and the movie just picks up steam from there. There are a handful of missteps in the screenplay—one character, for instance, is driven to a desperate act in his attempt to raise money for his mother’s lifesaving operation, and this feels just as hackneyed as it sounds—but again, they’re hard to notice.
Ajami isn’t the Israel you see in the news, and this is one of its finest qualities. After all, Serious Filmmaking–the kind with capital letters, the kind that feels a little dishonest and insular, even when it’s entertaining—is an elitist affair, the kind of thing practiced, for the most part, by people out of touch with the real-world impact of the issues they treat with such earnestness. Ajami is an antidote to that, and a reminder of how vital filmmaking should be.