Reviewed by Robert Sklar 

Produced by Mosh Danon, Thanassis Karathanos, and Talia Kleinhendler; directed, written, and edited by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani; cinematography by Boaz Yehonatan Yacov; music by Rabiah Buchari; starring Shahir Kabaha, Ibrahim Frege, Fouad Habash, Youssef Sahwani, Ranin, Karim, Eran Naim, and Scandar Copti. 125 min., color, in Arabic and Hebrew with English subtitles. A Kino International release.

Ajami commands attention for its codirection (and writing and editing) by Scandar Copti, a Palestinian citizen of the Israeli state (as he describes himself), and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew—a rare, if not unique, cinematic collaboration that seems to have generated an equally unusual mode of production. The filmmakers conducted actors’ workshops for months in casting the film completely with nonprofessionals. They withheld the script from their novice performers and gave them no set dialog to deliver; each actor had his or her own instructions, but didn’t know what the others were going to say or do. The directors shot simultaneously with two cameras, hoping to capture scenes on a first take, since later ones might lack the desired surprise and spontaneity.

Ajami is a neighborhood of Jaffa, an old Arab port town now an enclave of “Palestinian citizens of the Israeli state” at the southern tip of the expanding metropolis Tel Aviv. In the filmmakers’ rendering, it’s a hotbed of crime: gang domination, drug dealing, impulsive violence, and, perhaps above all, hostility between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, the former, of course, in charge of the repressive state apparatus, the latter enforcing formal social controls of their own. Moreover, it’s probably impossible to speak singularly of “Jews” and “Arabs,” as both are, subtly or blatantly, subdivided by differences of religion and class (and, for Palestinians, by Israeli checkpoints). Lastly, there are languages, Arabic and Hebrew, and one constantly notes the significance of who can understand one or the other, or both (luckily for the English-language spectator, the subtitles identify which language is being spoken, and we can read it all).

The film is divided into five “chapters,” three of which are precisely twenty-four minutes in length, and they leave the impression that the work at some point might have been conceived as a series of half-hour television dramas (leaving six minutes for credits, previews, and the like). This notion might also be supported by the film’s richness of incident and concomitant paucity of characterization—an aspect of the work that, in addition, could be ascribed to the actors’ lack of experience. Characters are defined largely by external circumstances, which tend to be dire: Omar (Shahir Kabaha) is ordered to pay a huge sum of money to an Arab gang as recompense for a shooting by an uncle, or risk his whole family being murdered. Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a West Bank resident illegally in Israel, needs to raise a huge sum of money for his mother’s operation, or she’ll die.

Death frames and dominates the work. The film opens with a drive-by shooting of a youth changing a tire, an innocent whom the killers mistakenly identify as Omar. A middle-class Jew who has moved into Ajami and complains one evening about farm animals in the neighborhood gets into a fight and is fatally stabbed. Binj (played by the director Scandar Copti), who is about to escape Ajami and go live with his Jewish girlfriend in Tel Aviv, instead commits suicide by deliberately overdosing on drugs. A Jewish soldier, brother of a cop who patrols Ajami, is found dead in the West Bank after apparently having been kidnapped. Omar and Malek, who hope to raise the funds they need by selling a package that they mistake as drugs, face gunfire from plainclothes police in an underground garage. This latter scene is shown three times in the film, ending the last three chapters, and the repetitions reveal new details and help to clarify, up to a point, who shot whom (I counted three deaths in the final version, two Palestinians and a Jew, but that’s just a guess).

What underlies all this mortality, expressed through the film’s generic elements, is, of course, its setting: a place where, as the press notes put it, “enemies living as neighbors” produce tragic consequences. Is this hyperbole, a strategy of sensationalism that has produced success through festival prizes (and an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film) because it accords with a particular ideology concerning Jewish-Palestinian relations? Is its dystopic viewpoint any closer to everyday life in Israel than, from a different perspective, the tale of a marriage between a Jewish woman and an Arab man in Amos Gitai’s 1998 film Yom Yom?

We see Binj dancing joyously in a Tel Aviv nightspot, amorously entwined with his Jewish girlfriend. When the couple meets with his friends at his apartment to let them know that he’s moving in with her, she can’t follow their Arabic conversation. “It’s only five minutes away,” he says. “It’s the principle,” a friend replies. It’s also more than that, as Binj’s brother is a suspect in the fatal stabbing and has fled, stashing drugs in Binj’s apartment. Jewish cops arrive in the night and ransack the place, seeking information about the brother. Binj, we are invited to understand, must acknowledge that his ease among Jews, and his love relation, are illusions, and his despair at this recognition leads to suicide. It’s didactic overkill in a film in which criminal action carries more weight than human interaction.

Robert Sklar is the author of Movie-Made America and many other books on film.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 3