The cast of "Ajami" spent a year in workshops, improvising reactions… (Kino International / EPA )
Film Critic — The last thing you see in "Ajami" should be the first thing on your mind about this compelling new film from Israel. That would be the closing credits, written in both Hebrew and Arabic, separate but equal, side by side, mirroring the creative process behind this potent work and the story it has to tell.
That language parity reflects a work not only set in the country's Jewish and Arab communities but also co-directed by Scandar Copti, an Israeli Arab, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. A first feature for both men, the film swept the Israeli Oscars, was the runner-up for Cannes' prestigious Camera d'Or and is one of the five features contending for the foreign-language Academy Award.
Named after a multiethnic neighborhood in the Israeli city of Jaffa, "Ajami" has considerably more going for it than the different ethnicities of its directors. It has a complex, elliptical structure that uses unconventional filming techniques to tell a bleak and fatalistic story conveyed with an unnerving sense of verisimilitude. For the Israel depicted in this film is not the Zionists' shining dream or the Palestinians' bucolic Eden. Rather it is a nation riven by frustrations and resentments, a place where bitter enmity between different groups -- not just Jews and Arabs but Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs, city Arabs and clannish Bedouins -- is endemic and reflexive, an instinctive reaction to feeling trapped by forces too overwhelming to deal with.
To get the gritty, neo-documentary feeling that they were after for this story, filmmakers Copti and Shani made a number of decisions. They decided to cast only nonprofessional actors, to put the cast through nearly a year of workshops in which reactions to specific dramatic situations were improvised, and then to film the story in sequence without using a traditional script. Not surprisingly, what resulted feels notably grounded in reality.
Another reason for this is the density of "Ajami's" script, which was developed over an eight-year period and tells its quartet of loosely but convincingly linked stories in a challenging way. Not only are there unannounced flashbacks, but certain events are shown several times, each time from a different point of view and each time revealing new and increasingly provocative information.
"Ajami" begins with a shooting that's even more senseless than usual for this part of the world, an assassination that is especially upsetting because it is immediately apparent that it was a case of mistaken identity. The intended victim, who is unharmed, is an Israeli Arab teenager named Omar (Shahir Kabaha), who has been unintentionally enmeshed in a bloody vendetta that started when his uncle killed a member of a powerful Bedouin criminal clan. The only way out for Omer is to raise a preposterously large sum of money. Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a young Palestinian, slips into Israel from the occupied territories to work at the same restaurant that employs Omar. He too is desperate for money, in this case to pay for the bone marrow transplant his mother needs to stay alive.
Desperate as well, but for an entirely different reason, is Dando (Eran Naim), a Jewish policeman whose soldier brother has gone missing while on the way home from the army. The brother's disappearance has all but destroyed Dado's family, and getting some kind of closure is all he can think about.
In some ways the most complex of "Ajami's" protagonists is Bin (played by co-director Copti), a sophisticated Palestinian who has a Jewish girlfriend while living in a culture so polarized that his Arab friends consider that romantic act a major betrayal.
Compressing "Ajami's" intricate story in such a bare-bones fashion does it a real injustice, because the summation doesn't show the way these characters exist on the borders of each others' stories and doesn't allow for all the texture and incident that the filmmakers have layered throughout the narrative.
We are transfixed, for instance, as we hear a Bedouin judge (played by a real Bedouin judge) carefully adjudicate Omar's case. We are shocked when a random street corner argument between neighbors about noise turns in a trice into an ugly and violent incident. And we notice how deeply the warmth and tenderness of family connection is felt, from both an Israeli father bathing his young daughter and an Arab grandfather getting sponged off by his grandson.
"Ajami" also points to the inevitable stifling intensity of intercultural connections in a small, claustrophobic country. Whether intentionally or not, every action any character takes affects another life. This often-fatal intertwining of cultures is what's on view here, and it's what co-director Shani is referring to when he says that "our idea was to make the audience experience what it meant to be the other." Let's hope it's not too late.