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March 2011

Ajami

cast: Shahir Kabaha, Scandar Copti, Ibrahim Frege, Youssef Sahwani, and Eran Naim

directors: Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani

121 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Momentum DVD Region 2

RATING: 9/10
review by Ian Sales

Ajami

Ajami is a district of Jaffa in Israel, in which adherents of three religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - live side-by-side, and not always peacefully. Ajami the film interweaves the lives of a number of residents of the district, people whose lives, and the decisions they make, impact on each other in unforeseen and often unwanted ways.

There is Omar (Shair Kandaha), whose uncle killed a Bedouin gangster who had demanded protection money, and so the Bedouin want to kill Omar, as he's now the 'head' of the family, unless he pays them 35,000 dinar. Malek (Ibrahim Frege) is a Palestinian, who works illegally at the restaurant owned by Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), and whose mother is seriously ill in hospital; he needs $75,000 for her bone marrow transplant. Binj (Scandar Copti) is a cook at Elias' restaurant, and he wants to move in with his Jewish girlfriend, but his friends think he is turning his back on his Arab roots. And his brother is on the run after being involved in the fatal stabbing of a Jewish man, and has given Binj a quantity of drugs to look after. Dando (Eran Naim) is a cop. His brother disappeared while serving with the Israeli Defence Force; meanwhile he's hunting for drug dealers in the district.

The story is structured in five chapters, each of which focuses on the story of a specific character. They also show some of the same events from other chapters, but from different perspectives and set within the context of the viewpoint character. These incidents are not shown linearly, but often double-back on earlier ones. As the film progresses, characters' motives come under question several times - and different answers obtain, dependent on circumstance. There's an element of fatefulness, of kismet, to the way the stories unfold and interlock. These are people trapped in the cycle of events and unable to break free because their own actions ensnare them.

Interlocking stories in a film is a structure that has been used several times by Hollywood. Crash by Paul Haggis won an Oscar for it in 2004, for example. The plots of such films are usually sparked by violence - either race riots in Los Angeles, or, as in the case of Ajami, drug-dealing in Jaffa. If violence is the trigger, then the fuel is usually the disparity between the lives of groups of people, between the haves and the have-nots. And this gap is typically institutional and systemic. In Ajami, religion is certainly part of the problem - Omar and Abu Elias' daughter, Hadir (Ranin Karim), are in love, but when Elias finds out he is furious: he doesn't want his daughter marrying a Muslim. When the police descend in force on Ajami to find the murderer of the Jewish man, the Arabs complain they would not have been as eager had the victim been an Arab. If anything, Ajami demonstrates that it is an uneasy peace which holds sway in Jaffa.

This does not mean Ajami is a pro-Arab, or a pro-Islam, film. It is even-handed in its treatment of all three religions and both races. No one is a paragon; no one is entirely innocent of wrong-doing. Indeed, the one character who could be described as innocent for much of the film commits the biggest crime of all at the end. This is also a movie in which the cast - who are uniformly very good - all talk and act like real people, and there's a believable inevitability to their downward spirals.

There are few films which have shown plausibly what life might be like in Israel - for both Jewish Israelis and Israeli Arabs (Muslim and Christian). Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention, a surreal black comedy, previously struck me as the closest to the reality. Ajami, which is far from comic, has been praised for its authenticity, and certainly it appears to be an accurate rendition of life in its titular district. It has also won a host of awards, although it lost out the Oscar for best foreign language film to Juan Jos´┐Ż Campanella's The Secret In Their Eyes. This is an excellent film which deserves to be better known.



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