Rarely has the tinderbox nature of the Middle East been so accurately lensed, on such an intimate scale, as in Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s powerful “Ajami.” Working with an impressive non-pro cast, the debuting multi-hyphenate helmers, Shani (Israeli) and Copti (Palestinian), start with a revenge killing and then show the repercussions furiously fanning out, to tragic results. Time shifts may overcomplicate the narrative for some, but the pay-off packs a major punch and fest travel is assured. Euro arthouse — Ad Vitam bought French rights for 2010 release — and bi-coastal Stateside play should create a buzz.
The one region “Ajami” can never play is the Middle East, since the Arab world’s cultural boycott of all things Israeli means that the most intelligent critiques of the occupation remain largely unseen by a target audience starved of multidimensional fare.
Copti and Shani took months auditioning locals, many of whom are from Jaffa’s multi-ethnic Ajami neighborhood. Rehearsals assumed the form of role-playing, so the amateur performers were guided to their characters by improv, giving a sense of spontaneity and reality that’s enhanced by handheld lensing.
Young Nasri (Fouad Habash), narrating, draws some of the events about to be described. A cousin was shot dead, mistakenly targeted in a tit-for-tat killing after Nasri’s uncle blew away an extortionist. The thug really wanted Nasri’s brother Omar (Shahir Kabaha), still a teen but the head man of his family.
Community leader Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani) arranges a truce as elders work out a fine in a scene worthy of a docu. Omar can’t raise the hefty figure by normal means, so he decides to peddle dope.
Meanwhile Malek (Ibrahim Frege), 16, a Palestinian from the Occupied Territories, illegally enters Jaffa and works at Abu Elias’ restaurant. The kid needs to pay for his mother’s bone marrow transplant, but his wages won’t nearly cover the expense. Also working at the restaurant is the boss’ daughter Hadir (Ranin Karim), who is romantically involved with Omar, a relationship that demands secrecy since she’s Christian and he’s Muslim.
On the Israeli Jewish side, cop Dando (Eran Naim) is preoccupied by his younger brother’s recent disappearance. He’s called to investigate drugs at the house of Binj (co-helmer Copti), a Palestinian with a Jewish g.f. and himself drawn into the cycle of violence when his brother stabs a Jewish neighbor following an inconsequential argument.
The narrative is divided into chapters, presumably to assist viewers uncertain about the sequence of events. Some may see the temporal jumps as unnecessary cinematic devices that gratuitously overcomplicate the structure, and auds will be divided over whether a little (deliberately unclear) foreknowledge helps or hinders overall emotional intensification. Either way, there’s no denying “Ajami’s” gut-level force despite being spread out along a broad range of characters.
Some of the film’s success is its ability to cover so much ground in such an even-handed way, partly thanks to the helmers’ diverse backgrounds. Issues such as the Palestinian contempt for Arab collaborators and the impossibility of intra-ethnic relationships are treated intelligently, without the need for over-explanation. But what comes through most clearly is the constant state of simmering hostility between the different communities, each side rewarding overweening machismo to predictably disastrous results.
No location in Israel encapsulates this fissured tolerance as well as Jaffa, where Arabs and Jews live side by side in deep mutual distrust. The amateur actors’ rawness works both with subject matter and visual style, creating a flawless ensemble. Cinematographer Boaz Yehonatan Yacov also lensed “My Father, My Lord,” another film notable for the way the camera naturally fit within a community. Auds unfamiliar with the sound of Arabic and Hebrew would benefit from subtitles signaling which language is spoken when.