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AJAMI (directors/writers: Scandar Copti/Yaron Shani; cinematographer: Boaz Yehonatan Yacov; editors: Scandar Copti/Yaron Shani; music: Rabiah Buchari; cast: Shahir Kabaha (Omar), Ibrahim Frege (Malek), Fouad Habash (Nasri), Youssef Sahwani (Abu Elias), Ranin Karim (Hadir), Eran Naim (Dando), Scandar Copti (Binj), Elias Saba(Shata), Hilal Kabob(Anan); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating:NR; producers: Mosh Danon/Thanassis Karathanos; Kino International; 2009-Israel-in Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles)
“Gripping modern-day drama about crime and tensions among the Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ajami is partly funded with Israeli money. It was filmed with a cast of non-professionals. The titlerefers to the high crime multi-ethnicghetto in Tel Aviv’s Jaffa sub-city, where the story is set. Scandar Copti, an Israeli Arab, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, co-direct, co-write and co-edit this gripping modern-day drama about crime and tensions among the Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. It shows both groups facing the same pains and are both caught up in a conflict that has gotten out of control with no apparent solution, making it a metaphoric comparison to the ongoing Palestinian and Israeli conflict. Also thrown into the mix, as if there wasn’t enough conflict, the prejudice between Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs.

Copti has a starring role as the fun-loving party-boy Palestinian Hebrew-speaking stoner sous-chef named Binj, who dreams of escape from the ghetto to live with his Jewish girlfriend in Tel Aviv. But in this fatalistic film there’s no escape from hatred, vendettas, tensions over money, pressures to conform from friends and family and the neighborhood drug and burglary scene. The Jaffa slum seems not that different from the Los Angeles of “Boyz N the Hood” or the Rio de Janeiro of the “City of God.”

The film unfolds in five interlocking chapters. It opens with the drive-by shooting of an innocent 15-year-old, who was mistaken for the 19-year-old Omar (Shahir Kabaha). The shooting occurs when the family’s cafe owner uncle in self-defense critically wounds a Bedouin extortionist gunman. His violent clan in retaliation critically wound the uncle, burn down the cafe and plan to wipe out the uncle’s entire family. The Muslim Arab Omar is helped by the oily connected Christian restaurant owner Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani), someone he works for, who arranges for someone prominent to arbitrate a peace treaty that has Omar’s impoverished family paying a big sum of money to the Bedouin family to be forgiven. Omar is also carrying on an illicit romance with his boss’ attractive daughter (Ranin Karim), and when daddy finds out he fires Omar.

The naive teenager illegal Palestinian refugee Malek (Ibrahim Frege) also works in the kitchen of Abu Elias’s restaurant and needs a big sum of money to pay for his young mother’s bone-marrow transplant from an Israeli hospital. When Malek accidently comes across a big stash of cocaine, he teams with Omar to sell it and thereby have them both solve their money problems.

The heavyset Dando (Eran Naim) is a hardworking and doting family man, but the Jewish drug-enforcement officer acts as a brute while working the night-shift and is up all day searching for his missing brother. When it’s discovered that his younger army brother was killed in the West Bank while on leave by militant Arabs, the enraged Dando takes it out on the bumbling amateur drug dealers when tipped off of a drug deal is going down in a garage.

There are numerous incidents showing the threat of violence is always just under the surface, as the film shifts sympathies back and forth between Jews and Arabs to show how much tension there is among both groups to each other and how the tension is not allowed to dissipate because both sides are pushed by loyalties to their families and religions after every incident. The violence could be random, as a Jewish resident complains to his thuggish Arab neighbors in the ghetto of noise and is stabbed to death or, it could be systemic, as the mostly Jewish police force of Jaffa, in one of the few places where Jews and Arabs live side by side, act as an occupying army and are hated by the Arab residents because of their strong-arm tactics.

Ajami paints a grim but realistic picture of a part of the world where there’s little hope that peace can be reached because of the lingering hatred and violence. In a matter of fact, even-handed tone, this excellent film gives us a glimpse at why that’s so, as it just aims to show us what we’re up against and not give us a lecture on what has to be done. If nothing else, this frightening and unsentimental film poignantly gives us a heads up on all the confusion behind the gory daily headlines from that region of the world.

In 2009, it was an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”