Monday, 7 February 2011

Ajami - Getting to the heart of conflict in Israel

* This article was originally written for, a world cinema blog.

Title: Ajami
Genre: Crime thriller
Certificate: 15
Duration: 120 minutes
Director: Scandar Copti and Yarin Shani
Starring: Shahir Kabaha, Fouard Habash, Ibrahim Frege,
Studio: Vertigo Films
Format: DVD
Release Date: 14th February, 2011
Country: Israel

Gaining the special mention Camera d’Or prize at the 2009 Cannes film festival, Ajami is a complex multi—character crime thriller that focuses upon the Israeli/Palestinian conflict located within one of Tel Aviv’s poorest neighborhoods. Directed by Yarin Shani and Scandar Copti, the former a Jewish Israeli and the latter a Christian Israeli Arab who also stars, Ajami is most importantly a film that has been made by both sides of the conflict.

Ajami is the name of the neighborhood of Jaffa in which the movie takes place. In the beginning of the film, a local boy is shot dead in the street in a drive by shooting. It quickly transpires however that the shooting was a case of mistaken identity. The hit men were supposed to kill 19 year old Omar in order to reconcile an on-going family feud, which has seen death and injury on both sides. Refusing to run away though fearing for the life of himself and his family, Omar seeks help from Abu Elias the local crimelord, who runs the restaurant he works in. After attending a Bendouin court session, Omar is required to pay a large sum of money to settle the feud with the rival Abul-Zel family. Needing to make money quickly Omar is forced into a life of crime and drug dealing. It doesn’t help that Omar is also in love with Abu Elias’s daughter, Hadir, a Christian Arab.

Omar isn’t the only one with problems, however, Malek, an illegal immigrant who also works in the restaurant is desperately in need of money to pay for his mother’s bone marrow transplant. Even the restaurant’s head chef, Binj who appears to lead a more profitable and successful life suffers as a result of his brother’s involvement with crime. On the other side of the conflict, Jewish cop Dando is trying to find his missing brother whilst attempting to do his duty in an increasingly brutal fashion. Echoing a narrative form inherited from Quentin Tarantino, Ajami’s story unfolds throughout the course of five interlocking chapters, which play out in an unchronological fashion from a variety of alternative perspectives.

A case of mistaken identity.
In a similar fashion to how The Wire defined the city of Baltimore by illustrating the social divisions between the criminals and the authorities, Ajami attempts to do the same within Jaffa. Whilst all characters are motivated by basic and understandable human behavior, their situation within Ajami and all its conflicting social boundaries make resolution all the more difficult. Daily life is permeated by destructive racial prejudices and the prevalence of money only pushes the impoverished into illegal activity cementing the age old vicious cycle, despair and violence only breeding more despair and violence. Whilst no character appears completely heatless, it is Abu Elias, the one character who exists in a position of power that truly comes across as unsympathetic , effectively serving as a tax man, initially appearing approachable in a time of crisis until he announces that a greater amount of money is needed.

Most of the actors and actresses have never acted before but it never really shows or affects the film’s believability. Shahir Kabaha as Omar centers the whole movie, he is essentially just a kid but one who has to take action as the man of the family. The directors are quick to focus on the good social interactions between characters, between families and friends, with family being a dominant theme throughout the film at the centre for the conflict. For all Dando’s negliable behavior as a cop, he is rectified by one sequence in which he bathes his infant daughter. This is the scary part of the movie, on the surface all these people seem like decent human beings but all it takes is a scratch of the surface to illuminate all the social complications. This is evident in one particular scene in which an initially civil discussion between a Jewish and Arab neighbor quickly turns to violence and a dead body. 

The directors: (from left)Yarin Shani and Scandar Copti
The non-linear way in which Ajami progresses, is a very intelligent way of both informing and misleading the audience. Based on the plot as they see it, audiences are bound to make their own assumptions and predictions based on their own prejudices or at least their previous experiences from watching other movies from the same genre. It is only until the credits roll, do we gain the full understanding of events and we can finally make our own conclusions. Ajami is therefore a very important film, aside from the fact that it is also a brilliantly executed thriller that keeps the audience guessing right up until the end. 

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