Ajami: Israel’s Oscar-Nominee, Portrait of Multi-Racial Neighborhood

Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s “Ajami,” which has just been nominated for the foreign language picture Oscar by the Academy, is a powerful, if dramatically flawed crimer.
It is set on the streets of Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood, a melting pot of cultures and conflicting views among Jews, Muslims and Christians.
The movie world-premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival (in the Directors’ Fortnight series) and will be released by Kino in a platform mode on February 5 (after the Oscar nominations are announced February 2).
Using multiple perspectives, the saga is told through the eyes of a cross-section of the city’s inhabitants: a young Israeli (Shahir Kabaha) fighting a criminal vendetta against his family, a Palestinian refugee (Ibrahim Frege) working illegally to finance a life-saving surgery, a Jewish police detective (Eran Naim) obsessed with finding his missing brother, and an affluent Palestinian (Scandar Copti) dreaming of a future with his Jewish girlfriend.
As is the mode in today’s cinema, manifest in “Magnolia,” Babel,” and “Crash” (among many others), “Ajami” is divided into chapters, its stories are intersected, and the narrative shifts back and forth in time.
The time jumps may be too complicated for this kinds of narrative, and it takes time to get involved as the story is spread out, with too many characters for its own good.
The whole of “Ajami” is better than the individual parts. The cumulative effect is that of a complex puzzle, based on the collision of different worlds and the tragic consequences of enemies, presumably living as real neighbors, though there are always tension and suspicion in the air.
Young Nasri (Fouad Habash) narrates the events, beginning with the shooting of a cousin, mistakenly targeted in a brutal street killing; the goal was to kill Nasri’s brother Omar (Shahir Kabaha), a teenager about to become the head of his family. Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), the community leader, arranges for a truce and the respectable elders work out a fine. However, since Omar can’t raise the money by legitimate means, he resorts to drug-dealing.
Things change for the worse, when Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a Palestinian adolescent from the Occupied Territories, arrives illegally in Jaffa and works at Abu Elias’ restaurant. He needs to pay for his mother’s transplant, but his income is not nearly enough to cover the expensive operation. Also working at the restaurant is the boss’ daughter Hadir (Ranin Karim), who is romantically involved with Omar, who is Christian. Meanwhile, Dando (Eran Naim), an Israeli cop searching for his missing younger brother, is asked to investigate drugs at the house of Binj (Copti), a Palestinian involved with a Jewish woman.
Though a bit schematic in depicting various forms of inter-religious and interracial relationships, “Ajami” bears the distinction of being co-directed by an Israeli (Shani) and Palestinian (Copti), and it benefits from the work of a non-professional cast (many of the players are locals from Jaffa’s multi-ethnic neighborhood), two elements that contribute to the tale’s authenticity.
Produced by Mosh Danon, Thanassis Karathanos.
Co-producer, Talia Kleinhendler.
Directed, written, edited by Scandar Copti, Yaron Shani.
Camera, Boaz Yehonatan Yacov.
Music, Rabiah Buchari.
Production designer, Yoav Sinai.
Costume designer, Rona Doron.
Sound, Itai Elohav, Kai Tebbel.

Running time: 120 Minutes.