Ajami as Israel

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February 2, 2010

Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s 2009 drama Ajami is an extraordinary film, arguably the most remarkable in the growing list of award-winning features that have come out of Israel in recent years. Copti and Shani draw a dismal portrait of the Ajami quarter in Jaffa—a multiethnic town now an integral part of the Tel-Aviv area. Their primary focus is its Palestinian residents. Each of the film’s five chapters puts into relief a different character, as Ajami’s story becomes inextricably entangled with their own personal ones.

The first chapter of Ajami introduces the film’s principle story. Omar, a 19-year-old Muslim resident of the quarter, earns a living as a kitchen aid at a fancy restaurant. He is in love with the daughter of his wealthy Christian employer, Abu Elias. Omar finds himself in a bind after his uncle shoots and wounds a Bedouin youngster who arrives at the uncle’s restaurant in Ramla in order to extort protection money. After failing to kill the uncle in retaliation, members of the Bedouin clan target Omar and his family to avenge the youngster’s injury. To help him resolve the feud and protect his family, Omar appeals to Abu Elias, who succeeds in bringing the parties together for mediation. The mediator, however, determines that Omar should pay the Bedouin clan US$57,000 as blood money. Omar turns to crime in to raise the required money.

Ajami’s second chapter features Malek, a young Palestinian from Nablus who illegally crosses into Israel and finds work at Abu Elias’ restaurant. Malek learns that he has to raise $50,000 to allow his mother to undergo a bone marrow transplant . Chapter three introduces Dando, a Jewish officer in the Special Patrol Unit of the Israeli Police Force, in charge of Ajami. Dando’s soldier brother goes missing on his way back to his military base. Chapter four follows Binj, the cook at Abu Elias, who wants to leave Ajami and move in with his Jewish girlfriend in Tel Aviv. His plans come to naught, however, when his brother gets involved in a dispute with a Jewish neighbor that ends in murder. The last chapter focuses on Abu Elias, who, to his great consternation, learns of his daughter’s affair with Omar, and tries to break up their relationship.

Ostensibly, Ajami is a film about the forces that drive young men to crime. It is also supposed to be about the insurmountable obstacles confronting Palestinian Israeli youth. The fact is that while these are all definite parts of the film, its reach is far greater. Ajami, simply put, tells the story of the Palestinian condition in Israel. Crime-infested and poverty-ridden, Ajami is the stage upon which the directors point an accusing finger at the Jewish state. First and foremost, Ajami tells of the density and richness of human relations in Israel’s Palestinian community, refusing to reduce it into a single, simplistic logic governed by crime or politics, as so many films about the conflict do (Eran Riklis’s 2008 Lemon Tree and Amos Gitai’s 2007 Disengagement, and even Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir are good examples).

In large measure, this is the effect of the overlap of Ajami ’s five chapters. Each chapter probes events and incidents that figure in other chapters from the perspective of the story at the film’s center. As details mount, viewers are thus forced to continuously reevaluate characters and incidents, to repeatedly reconstruct the plot of the movie, even as the fate of the characters is more or less already known.

In this light, Ajami is reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s 2000 Memento. Like its predecessor, Ajami successfully builds in tension throughout its different episodes, creating a sense of suspense that is motivated by the tragic fate the characters face. Here inheres the ultimate tragedy of the film, because its characters are caught in a state of affairs not of their own making, and try as they may to transcend it, they ultimately fail, consistently succumbing to their circumstances.

Ajami also bears resemblance to such films as Pier Paulo Pasolini’s Accattone on the one hand and to the Dogma 95 films of Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg on the other. Like Pasolini, Copti and Shani rely on an unprofessional cast, made up of the residents of the Jaffa neighborhood, as well as real-life cops, in order to tell their story. Though Ajami is supposed to be a crime movie, a genre rejected by Dogma 95 directors, it does reproduce the grittiness of their films. Copti and Shani thus shun special effects and postproduction modifications to focus on the drama, and on the performances of the actors. Ajami is shot entirely on location with a handheld camera, while the sound is taken straight from the video, without any outside music added. Still, Trier and Vinterberg employ this strategy in order to probe the Danish bourgeoisie and its mystifications. Copti and Shani, in contrast, turn the emphasis on the rudimentariness of cinematic means—a byproduct of the relative lack of resources all Israeli filmmakers have to deal with, and that ultimately determines the look of all Israeli films—into a perfect vessel for their story of destitution and hardship.

Ajami may be a difficult film to follow, even more so for a non-Israeli audience. Part of this is due to the film’s non-linear plotline. However, it is also a consequence of being exposed to the fragmented society that Ajami portrays. That’s exactly the directors’ point, particularly in light of how Israeli films have historically represented Israelis and Palestinians as though they are two distinct and cohesive ethnic groups. Ajami, in contrast, is a place of warring tribes, where any notion of in-group solidarity is shattered. Palestinian society has long since lost any pretense to community. Christians fight Muslims, Israeli Palestinians are in conflict with residents of the Occupied Territories, and city dwellers quarrel with Bedouins. The Israeli state and its law enforcement agencies are but one more tribe in this all-out war.

Though Ajami may be about Palestinian society, there’s no escaping the fact that it is also about Jewish Israeli society, using the plight of Israeli Palestinians as its example. The point being that even though Jews and Arabs may live apart inside the Green Line, they are still citizens of the exact same state. The misfortunes that befall one are ultimately the misfortunes of the other. Though the film may also be about problematising the simple mindedness with which even leftists have come to view Palestinians, there is no escaping the fact that the violence it portrays is in fact the bottom line, for everyone involved. Despite Ajami’s complexity, this shouldn’t require much effort to comprehend.

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