“Ajami,“ an Israeli-Arab 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. Enchanting its name from a benighted neighborhood of the ancient coastal city Ajami. This film is an effort of two talented film makers, who co-directed and co-scripted together. Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew and Scandar Copti, who carefully calls himself a Palestinian citizen of the Israeli state. Interestingly the film contains five story lines, each of which is presented in a non-chronological fashion. Some events are shown multiple times from varying perspectives.
Interestingly this is the director-duos first collaboration and full length film, the actors most of them are the residence of Ajami, none had ever studied acting or had appeared in a film. They were not given scripts. There were no second takes. The film is a narration that defines the destiny of Ajami by a 13 year young Israeli Arab boy, Nasri. The making of the film nicks from the techniques of Gomorrah and Amores Perros, in interlacing characters and storylines to create a drapery of lives. Shot in the Ajami neighborhood of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Ajami explores the devious 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.
The story initiates the shooting that kills an innocent boy, mistaken for one of the main characters, Omar. It’s the result of a vendetta between two crime clans and revenge for the shooting of Bedouin weeks earlier. Nasri narrates the intent target was his older brother Omar, who had previously sold the car to the neighbor. The botched hit was revenge for a loss of one of Bedouin clan members, who was shot and paralyzed by Nasri’s uncle in a dispute. Nasri and his younger sister are sent to Jerusalem, while Omar, his mother, and grandfather stay behind. Thus fearing the family’s safety, Omar seeks protection and guidance from Abu Elias, an affluent restaurant owner, and well known and respected member of the Jaffa community. Abu Elias arranges for a three day cease fire, and hires a lawyer to represent Omar in tribal court. During this time, Nasri and his sister return home.
At the conclusion of the court session, the judge declares that Omar must pay ten thousand dinar, so peace can be restored. Omar is given three weeks to make good on his payment. Omar and his friend Shaata attempt petty crime in order to come up with the finances, but are unsuccessful at bringing in enough money. Omar’s mother attempts to persuade him to escape with the family, but Omar refuses to leave, believing that there is no place to run to.
The second story is about a teenaged boy named Malek, lives at Palestinian territory of Nablus. Illegally employed at Abu Elias’s restaurant, works out of desperation for want of money to his ailing mother’s bone marrow transplant surgery. Malek befriends Omar, who has also become a recent employee at the restaurant. It is also revealed that Omar, a Muslim, in love with Abu Elias’s daughter Hadir, a Christian. Abu Elias, once discovering the secret couple later in the movie by observing them in the clandestine act of flirtation, does not approve of their relationship, fires Omar in anger and warning of dire consequences
The third story is a violent encounter between an older Jewish man and his three young drug dealing Arab neighbors. The row begins when the Jewish man complains to the young men that he has been disturbed due to moaning of sheep that keeps him awake without sleep all night. Their disagreement leads to stabbing of Jewish man by the Arab neighbors. The three young men go into hiding before the police arrive. Amid the policemen who arrive at the scene is an Israeli officer named Dan, nicknamed Dando. The viewer’s learn that Dando’s younger brother Yoni has gone missing during his service in the Israeli Defense Forces. The rumors circulate of his disappearance, but ends up as a murder in the Palestinian territories. Dando is emotionally traumatized and vows to find the murderer and bring him to justice
The turn of fourth story unfolds the character Binj (played by co-director Scandar Copti) an eccentric cook who works in Abu Elias’s restaurant. Also close friends of Omar, Shaata and Malek. Binj is in love with a Jewish girl from Tel Aviv, and plans of moving in with her, much to the apprehension of his group of friends. It is discovered that Binj’s brother was one of the three involved in the stabbing of the Jewish man in Jaffa. Both Binj and his father are interrogated by the policeman Dando, in suspicion of killing his brother. This part of narrative shifts back and forth, witnessing the drama of collision which climaxes the last part encountering Omar, Malek, and the drug dealers together.
Toward the beginning of the film, the scene lead to believe that Malek was shot to death by the drug dealers, once they discovered the drugs were fake, that’s revealed later that dealers were actually the policemen executing a sting operation. This also discloses that Omar’s younger brother Nasri insisted on accompanying Omar and Malek to the meeting, afraid that something bad would happen to his brother. Upon arrival, Omar tells Nasri to stay in the car. At Malek’s urging, leaves his gun behind, so in the meeting the police, Omar and Malek are beaten by Dando’s team as they discover the drugs happen to be fake. Dando sees Malek with the pocket watch he planned to give Abu Elias as a present and believes that the watch belonged to Yoni and in a fit of rage beats Malek and aims his gun at him with the intent to murder him. However Nasri, who hadn’t stayed in the car as ordered, sees the gun pointed at Malek, and shoots Dando with Omar’s gun. He is then shot and killed by another officer. The film ends with Omar escaping down an alleyway and getting back to the car, only to discover that Nasri is missing.
“Ajami” features an unusual nuanced insight to life in Israel. The warring among all the groups is more about poverty than about politics. Its misperception of personalities and passions make lives complex, there are no pleas, there are no happily ever after, there are no heroes, no villains and life at its rivaled itch, bestows those unrest. The age old prejudices and hatreds surface every now and then, but the main aim is the politics of day to day survival, and in the same world, hope shall collide again, head-on and leave us to pick up the pieces alone in the dark of the cinema, you will be desperate to grapple onto anything or anyone for relief.
Quiet an intense ending and intelligently made film and the directors offer no facile solutions or sermons and allow the considerable energy of its images to sweep audience beside. ….
- Written; Directed & Edited by Scandar Copti & Yaron Shani
- Produced by Moshe Danon; Thanassis Karathanos & Talia Kleinhendler
- Casting: Fouad Habash; Ibrahim Frege; Scandar Copti; Shahir Kabaha & Eran Naim
- Music by Rabih Boukhari
- Cinematography: Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov
- Release dates: 22 May 2009 (Cannes)
- Run time of 120 minutes
- Country: Israel
- Language: Arabic & Hebrew