Israel’s mean streets
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 (Caméra d’Or, Special Dictinction), and in Israel (a sweep of their film awards including Best Film and Best Director); and it is one of the five 2010 Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film. Using 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 is full of 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 filmmaking.
As A.O. Scott wrote, the film depicts a world of “innocent, imperiled children; restless young guys in love with beautiful, unattainable women; honorable thieves; dirty cops; and powerful men who dwell on both sides of the law.” Violence is always around the corner even in friendly meetings and even “the drive to do the right thing usually ends in tragedy.” As Scott goes on, this is a world not so far from the “L.A. of Colors or Boyz N the Hood, the Baltimore of The Wire or the Rio de Janeiro of City of God”. Here too as in those films there are meaningless killings, families ripped apart, star-crossed lovers, and drugs. This time the political and ethnic prison is defined by Israel and the occupied lands, by conflicts that are always changing but are by now old (if not ancient) and all too clearly defined.
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 evens 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 it, 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 of course 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. 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 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 been dealt with in the successful 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” (???????, al-hukuma, 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 burying 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.
Ajamii was a finalist for the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Film with A Prophet, The White Ribbon, The Secret of Her EyesI and The Milk of Sorrow. It lacks the polish of most of these but as a Palestinian-Jewish collaboration and a realistic portrayal of the seamier side of Israeli life it has a significance that explains its presence on the list.
DIRECTOR: SCANDAR COPTI, YARON SHANI
WRITER: SCANDAR COPTI, YARON SHANI
CAST: FUAD HABASH, NISRINE RIHAN, ELIAS SABA, SCANDAR COPTI