Co-written and co-directed by Israeli Arab Scandar Copti and Israeli Jew Yaron Shani, Ajami is a momentous achievement of such ambition, scope and force that it makes 95 percent of the films currently playing look like kid flicks. Ringing culture-specific changes on the adolescent crime film, the filmmakers blow a genre pic into a dazzling sociopolitical commentary on the tormented Arab-Jewish relationship. If your pulse isn't racing just yet, the first five minutes will assuredly do the trick.
A drive-by assassination by two guys on a motorcycle leaves a child bleeding to death on the streets of Ajami, a seething mixed neighborhood of Jaffa (near Tel Aviv). Our horrified concern switches in a flash to the intended target, a teenager named Omar who's on the hook because his uncle shot the Bedouin gang member who was harassing him for protection money. Now desperate for protection himself, Omar turns to Abu Elias, a Christian Arab restaurant owner with connections. (By the end of the film, you'll be wondering just how far this businessman's influence extends.)
The price that Omar must pay for peace is far more than he has, and he shuffles through various ideas and schemes trying to raise the dough. Seemingly out of options, and accompanied by a too-trusting Palestinian teen who works in Abu Elias' kitchen and needs cash for his mother's surgery, Omar takes a major gamble. Underscoring the tension, confusion and desperation that leads to such misguided decisions, the film employs non-professional actors, excellent handheld camerawork and a deviously clever time scheme.
The drama plays out, for the first hour or so, among characters on various rungs of the Arab socioeconomic hierarchy. We're not used to seeing Arab-on-Arab violence, and the exploitation of Arabs by Arabs (Palestinians by Israeli Arabs; Muslims by Christians). On one hand, this internecine activity reflects the same low-level (albeit bloody) turf conflict that drives American crime movies set among dispossessed immigrant or inner city populations. But we're also meant to understand that this pressure-cooker environment of limited options and scarce resources derives from Israel's control of the Occupied Territories.
You forget this at your peril, savvy viewer, even though we don't see or meet any Israeli characters for a good long while. And when they do arrive on the scene, the plot thickens and the film's themes become even thornier. Much of this derives from Copti and Shani's brilliant use of shifting points of view and time, with events that we've already witnessed subsequently reenacted from another character's perspective (and fears).
This may sound like a familiar gimmick from Babel, Traffic and Reservoir Dogs. However, the intention here is not to show off the filmmakers' cleverness or illuminate the role that fate and chance play in our lives. Shani and Copti are using the techniques of storytelling -- and the expectations of story watching -- to gut-punch us with the direct experience that we make decisions about people in movies, and real life, based on initial impressions and unreliable information.
Ajami is the third consecutive Israeli film to receive an Academy Award nomination (after Beaufort and Waltz With Bashir), which attests, above all, to the tough subjects Israeli filmmakers are tackling with rare, unflinching skill. All three movies intertwine the personal and the political with exceptional dexterity, albeit with widely different aesthetics and approaches. In case it needs to be said: See Ajami this week with a friend, and plan on a long cup of coffee afterward.
Ajami opens Friday, March 12, 2010 at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco, the Albany Twin in Berkeley, and Camera 3 in San Jose.