First published on Passionforcinema.com
Co-Written and Co-Directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani
Ajami is a gripping peek into the intersecting lives of an assortment of young Muslims, Christians, and Jews living in a suburb of Tel Aviv, Israel. The area is poor, with high unemployment and the resultant high crime.
A Bedouin gangster walks into a restaurant to demand protection money and the owner shoots him in defense. The gangster’s clan vow to wipe out the owner’s family in revenge. The family turn to a local Christian community leader who negotiates for a tribal court to resolve the issue of blood money payments. The community leader also has a restaurant. One of his staff is an Arab boy living illegally in Israel while making money for his mother’s operation. The restaurant cook, also a Muslim, is dating a Jewish girl, much to the chagrin of his friends. An Israeli policeman tries to hold his family together after his soldier brother disappears. These stories (and more) jump back and forth in place, viewpoint, and time.
Like any film formed from intersecting stories, Crash jumps to mind, and there are certainly parallels. The biggest difference is in the production style. Films such as Crash are heavily scripted, with carefully composed shots. In order to differentiate the many characters, the characterization can border on caricaturish.
Ajami avoids this with two techniques.
Firstly, the film is shot hand-held, documentary-style. The motion is fast and fluid. The blocking is clumsy. When the actors run, the camera runs. Music spills from stereos and TV sets. The feeling is of being right there with them.
Secondly, the actors are mostly non-professional. They are normal people that speak and move naturally. Dramatic monologues would be absurd coming from their mouths, so the script gives them real, conversational dialogues, filled with grunts, repetition, interruptions and unfinished sentences.
What really brought the film to life for me was the use of language. The Muslim characters speak Arabic, the Christians and Jews speak Hebrew. When they are together they speak a mixture. Here in India, I have sat through countless conversations wherein some people speak Hindi, some speak English, and some speak both. The conversations meander between the languages. Someone tells a joke in Hindi, which has to be translated for the English speakers. Someone uses a fancy English word which has to be translated for others. When making an emphatic point, someone will repeat their line in both languages. Ajami captured this perfectly. It is an awkward way to write dialogue, but it is exactly how these people communicate in real life.
Each character is shown from multiple perspectives. A person can be both kind and cruel. Tolerant and bigoted. Thoughtful and thoughtless. Each one of them wants something better, and not just for themselves, many want to help their families.
But these young people are trapped by the weight of centuries of tradition and hatred. Where, when and how they can travel and work, who they can be friends with, who they can marry, how they resolve disputes. All this, and more, is predetermined for them, leaving them powerless, angry and hostile. When trying to arrest a drug dealer who is breaking his house arrest, the police are overpowered by a mob of civilians to come to the dealer’s help. The policeman angrily ponders this, “he sells drugs to their children, but they help him escape”. The local Arabs hate the police more than they hate a criminal.
These are the moments that make Ajami so powerful. The plot is carefully assembled, filled with truly surprising twists. The characters slowly blossom throughout the film. At the end we sympathize with each of them, no matter what they have done. But it is that aching discontent and simmering hatred that fills every scene with a truly memorable sadness. This is what keeps coming back into my mind: the ‘feeling’ of the film, rather than just the story.