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Ajami is an area of Jaffa where Arabs, Palestinians, Jews and Christians try to live together in an atmosphere that is -to say the least - electric. Omar, an Israeli Arab, struggles to save his family from elimination by a gang of extortionists. He also courts a beautiful Christian girl, Hadir, but marrying her is far from obvious. Malek, an illegal Palestinian worker, tries to collect enough money to pay for his mother's operation. Dando, an Israeli cop, does his utmost to trace his missing brother who may have been killed by Palestinians. Binj, Malek and Omar's Arab friend, suffers from being rejected by other members of his community for mixing with an Israeli girl. All of them will meet violence, most of the time ... with violence. Written by
Ajami is a first film by the team of Scandar Copti, an Israeli Arab (with a Christian family name), and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. It gained recognition at Cannes and in Israel; and is nominated for the Best Foreign Oscar. Using locally recruited non-actors, shooting in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, which has become a mostly Arab ghetto outpost of Tel Aviv, 'Ajami' is full of improvisation and hand-held camera work that give it an intense feeling of immediacy -- and seethes with action disturbing enough to leave you feeling bruised. Israeli cinema is remarkable for a tiny country; it's a pity more Arabs outside Israel can't see this film. Despite the myriad hostilities and misunderstandings 'Ajami' depicts -- between Palestinians from the territories and Israeli Arabs; Arab Christians and Arab Muslims; Israelis and Arabs; rich and poor; old and young -- there is hope in the fact that an Arab and a Jew could team up for such passionate film-making.
'Ajami' interweaves multiple story-lines with a documentary feel using a large cast and, to make matters more complicated but also underline interconnections, it's divided into chapters that are not quite in chronological order so some events are seen again, from a different angle the second time. Most of the scenes are in Arabic but some are in Hebrew or a mixture of Hebrew and Arabic. All the location inter-titles and the end credits are rigorously both Hebrew and Arabic -- a practice not uncommon in Israeli cinema, but especially resonant here.
The action begins with a drive-by shooting -- of the wrong person. A young boy, Nasri (Fouad Habash), who narrates the film, his soft voice giving it a kind of clarity and delicacy, is present when his cousin is shot while working on a car in the street. The hit man meant to get Nasri's brother Omar (Shahir Kabaha), as revenge for Nasri's uncle's killing of an extortionist. Omar is now clearly in mortal danger.
The neighborhood leader and restaurant owner Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani) arranges a deal-brokering among village elders at a bedouin camp where men bid back and forth as to how much protection or payoff money is required for Omar to stay alive. Omar can't possibly raise the sum finally arrived upon, but he's indentured at Abu Elias' restaurant; and there, Omar turns out to be in love with his boss' daughter Hadir (Ranin Karim), a serious no-no, since her family is Christian and Omar's is Muslim. Next there arrives a bright-eyed and innocent teenager, Malek (Ibrahim Frege) who sneaks in from the occupied territories and is an illegal worker in the restaurant, an Arab exploited by an Arab, the harsh Abu Elias. Malek also has an impossible financial burden, needing to raise many thousands to pay for a bone marrow transplant for his seriously ill mother.
Eventually both Omar and Malek are drawn into trying to deal dope to raise money, against the strong objections of Nasri, and totally against the wishes of Abu Elias, who wishes to appear to function within the law, even if he doesn't.
Meanwhile there are the Israeli and near-Israeli parts of the story. Dishonest Israeli cop Dando (Eran Naim) appears both as a bastard, when persecuting the boys who're clumsily attempting to sell cocaine, and a softy, when it comes to the disappearance of his younger brother from the army, perhaps captured by Palestinians, an event that devastates his family (these are the all-Hebrew scenes). The Arab co-director Copti himself plays Binj, a Palestinian who speaks fluent Hebrew and has a non-Arabic speaking Jewish girlfriend. He is pressured by his Arab friends for this, and his life turns tragic when he holds drugs for the others after his brother has stabbed a Jewish neighbor in an argument over noisy animals, and the cops manhandle him, with Dando on hand in his bad-cop role. This sequence about Binj seems to dramatize the futility of cross-over dreams in this harsh world. (The problems faced by Arabs living in a Hebrew-speaking Israeli environment has also been dealt with in the hit Israeli sitcom "Arab Work.")
It doesn't necessarily seem as though Dando is more dangerous, in a sense, for the young Palestinians than the brutish Abu Elias, who threatens to break Omar's bones if he continues his courtship of Hadir. Partly it is the elders who appear as the villains, more threatening here than Israeli checkpoint guards.
One has to grapple with all these plot elements to follow 'Ajami.' The intersections get complicated, and the film is a bit under-edited at two full hours, but there is a wealth of cultural material that gets across along with the insistent problems and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness for young Arabs. There is great warmth among friends and family members of all stripes. But even fun moments seem framed in scariness, like a birthday celebration for Malek which he's sent to by threatening him that the "government" (الحكومة, i.e. police) is after him. Even the birthday present they give Malek, an electrified tennis racket, has an edge of menace. 'Ajami' doesn't stop for a breath or a moment of happiness: it succeeds in convincing you that isn't possible.
Further proof of that impossibility came early this month (February 2010) and life imitated art when Scandar Copti's brother Tony, a supporting actor in the film, was arrested after Israeli police accused some Ajami teenagers of hiding drugs who said they were only burying a dog. This led to a brawl in which Tony Copti and another brother were arrested and hauled off to the police station for questioning, according to a 'Haaretz' article.
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