Oscar-nominated ‘Ajami’ opens for St. Louis filmgoers

Although Israel’s official Academy Award submission for Best Foreign-Language Film — and one of last year’s five finalists — “Ajami” scarcely offers a sanctioned governmental perspective, instead giving equal weight to Arab and Jewish points of view. This duality is reflected in both the film’s writing and direction — shared by Scandar Copti, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew — and its language, which shifts between Arabic and Hebrew, sometimes within the same scene.

But even that description is falsely reductive, implying a simplistic us-vs.-them opposition. “Ajami’s” conflicts don’t fall so easily into such either-or categories: The film’s tangled lines of tension run in a dizzying array of directions, and a sharp tug on one often produces devastating effects in entirely unpredictable places.

ADVERTISEMENT

Set in the eponymous Ajami, a multicultural neighborhood of Jaffa (an ancient port city now subsumed within modern Tel Aviv), the film begins not with the expected conflicts between Palestinian and Jew — though those eventually surface – but with an Arab-on-Arab revenge killing. Tellingly, the murdered teen proves a victim of mistaken identity, and similar false assumptions and misunderstandings will recur again and again in “Ajami,” almost inevitably leading to fatal violence.

In a revealing irony, Omar (Shahir Kabaha), the intended target of the assassin’s bullets, is as blameless as the neighbor gunned down in his place. He and his family are simply caught in the crossfire of a dispute between his uncle, a bar owner who impulsively shoots a machine-gun-toting thug who attempts a shakedown for protection, and the extortionist’s powerful Bedouin family. Through the intercession of well-connected businessman Abu Elias (Youssef Sahwani) and an unofficial Arab court, Omar buys a temporary peace, but the debt he now owes forces him into escalating criminality.

Omar’s story proves just the first strand in a complex weave of crisscrossing narratives whose connections are obliquely hinted at throughout “Ajami” but completely revealed only in the film’s final section. Among the other threads in the tapestry: Dando (Eran Naim), a Jewish police detective investigating the disappearance of his brother, an Israeli soldier; Binj (co-director Copti), a Palestinian whose own brother is on the run from the police after stabbing a Jewish neighbor; Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a young Palestinian refugee working illegally within Israel to help his dying mother; Omar’s brother, Nasri (Fouad Habash), an aspiring cartoonist whose comics add a metafictional commentary to the film; and Abu Elias’ daughter Hadir (Ranin Karim), a Christian who’s involved in a clandestine, forbidden relationship with Muslim Omar.

Copti and Shani further complicate “Ajami’s” dense, Altman-esque structure, with its overlapping stories and sprawling cast, by fracturing chronology in a manner reminiscent of “Pulp Fiction,” even aping that film’s use of story chapters. “Ajami’s” shuttling back and forth in time creates occasional confusion by eliding explanatory details — When exactly did Omar and Hadir begin their courtship? How did Malek come into possession of a pocket watch that becomes so dramatically pivotal? — but this opacity is at least partially deliberate. The directors want the audience as off-balance and puz zled as the people onscreen: Our frustrations and misapprehensions, our lack of complete knowledge, mirror the state of the characters, who never quite understand each other fully despite their proximity – a point made especially clear in an uncomfortable scene in which Binj must translate (and censor) his friends’ Arabic conversation for his Jewish girlfriend.

“Ajami” has a strong allegorical component, using its crime-thriller story to explore the region’s seemingly intractable political problems. On one level, the film emphasizes the essential kinship among its many warring parties: “Ajami” features three sets of brothers – with unrelated characters frequently calling each other “bro” — and family serves as the driving force in all their lives. Sadly, however, this commonality doesn’t help bridge their differences, and clannish ties ultimately divide rather than unite.

Although the film’s bleak conclusion refuses to provide false comfort, “Ajami’s” own production history perhaps gives some small hope. Made collaboratively with the neighborhood’s actual residents, with the largely nonprofessional actors improvising much of the dialogue, “Ajami” impressively demonstrates the power of cooperation.

Cliff Froehlich is executive director of Cinema St. Louis, which annually presents the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase, held this year from July 17-22 at the Tivoli.

Ajami

Running time: Two hours

No rating

In Arabic and Hebrew with subtitles

Opens Friday at Plaza Frontenac