‘Ajami’ Tells of the Struggle to Survive By Any Means Necessary

[1 September 2010]

By Dan Heaton

The conflicting religious situation in Israel is difficult to present without drifting into a history lecture on cultural forces. The stories on news sources like NPR try to portray the human element, but it requires a gargantuan effort to inspire emotions. With a few exceptions, films presenting the modern climate have not reached worldwide attention.

Waltz with Bashir earned well-justified acclaim for its stunning animated images, though it does present events from the early ‘80s. Another strong entry was the suicide-bomber tale Paradise Now, which generated some interest in art-house circles. Yet a void remained for a closer look at the residents dealing with the nasty effects of the overall conflict.

Set in a tough Jaffa neighborhood, the Oscar-nominated Ajami depicts several young people struggling to survive by any means necessary. The plot hinges on a killing and its retribution that raise the tensions and could decimate an entire family. Omar (Shahir Kabaha) must earn the money to pay a huge fine to settle the damage caused by this unfortunate conflict. In a compelling sequence, a council of local leaders meets to determine the amount owed to each group. The deciders constantly refer to God and even change the fines for spiritual reasons.

This surreal mixture of real-world violence, corporate finance, and religion delivers a resolution that veers sharply from our expectations of modern justice. Although the leaders are proud of their fair decision, the results could be disastrous for Omar.

Directors Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti use a cast of entirely non-professional actors that brings more authenticity to the stories. The characters are well-drawn but lack the operatic showmanship often displayed by top-flight actors in this type of drama. Their understated work adds relevance and weight to many sequences. A second main story involves Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a young guy who needs money to pay for his mother’s hospital care. Entering the area illegally, he joins with Omar for a risky criminal move that could solve their financial issues or cause their destruction.

Employing handheld cameras and shooting among the citizens of the Ajami neighborhood, Shani and Copti craft a convincing environment. Important locations such as the restaurant managed by Anan (Hilal Kabob) lack the artifice present even in many low-budget pictures. As the proprietor, Kabob brings just the right mix of kindness and hardened weariness to the older Anan. He tries to help Omar and others, but there are limits to his assistance, particularly involving his attractive daughter Hadir (Ranin Karim).

Omar and Hadir are in love, but he’s a Muslim and she’s a Christian, which is not allowed, even by Anan. It’s intriguing to see how Shani and Copti weave the tale of star-crossed lovers into the religious conflict. While threatening the youngsters physically, the rifts also create havoc with their emotional lives.

This Blu-Ray release includes an engaging 30-minute documentary that presents the experiences of the actors throughout the production. Well before the film was shot, a large group of amateurs worked with the directors and an acting coach. They participated in a variety of exercises without an understanding of the upcoming film. When casting occurred, this helped the actors to develop an understated style and ability to improvise their characters. The disc also includes six deleted scenes, the trailer, and some still photographs.

Ajami employs a nonlinear structure that retains the mystery around key events until the final revelations. This disjointed narrative contributes to the unsettling feeling of the entire picture. Even when the characters are enjoying a quiet moment, the intensity can rise instantly. This is not a chaotic vision of hell like City of God, but it depicts serious tensions in the neighborhood’s daily life that rarely dissipate.

Another main figure is the overworked police officer Dando (Eran Naim), who is drowning beneath the nastiness of the conflict. He supports a family at home but can’t seem to please them, either. It’s another example of the unflinching human look at the struggle of Jews, Arab Muslims, and Arab Christians to live together in at least a fragile manner.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/130270-ajami/