All is not as it seems in the movie, “Ajami.”
Good guys are not so good. Bad guys are not so bad, and just when you think you have the plot all figured out, you don’t.
This circular intrigue unfolds in the backdrop of the stark lifestyles of Arabs and Jews living in close proximity and the issues raised by their situation.
“Ajami,” which won special mention at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, is the feature attraction of the 2010 Jewcy film series for young adults, ages 21-35. It’s a program of the Pittsburgh Jewish Israeli Film Festival.
Co-directed by an Israeli Arab and Israeli Jew and starring both Jewish and Arab actors, the off-camera “Ajami” is an example of cross-ethnic relations that, sadly enough, is too little in evidence in the movie itself.
Broken into four visual chapters, the story unfolds in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, a largely Arab community outside Tel Aviv. A Bedouin gang guns down a young man in broad daylight while he changes a tire on his newly purchased car.
But the shooting is a case of mistaken identity. The intended victim is Omar, a teenage Arab boy and the de facto head of his family. Omar was drawn into a conflict with Beduoins, in which one of their own was seriously injured. Now, he is marked for death.
With nowhere else to turn, he appears at the restaurant of a wealthy Christian-Arab, Abu-Lias, whose daughter and Omar are secretly in love. Abu-Lias arranges for a hearing before a tribal judge, and a settlement is mediated. But it means Omar must pay thousands of dollars in reparations — money he just doesn’t have.
He tries every way he can to raise the sum, including eventually selling drugs that come into his possession through a series of events.
It’s at this point that other characters enter the story: a young Arab from the West Bank working for Abu Lias to raise money for an operation his mother needs; an Israeli police officer whose younger brother, who is in the army, has gone missing and is feared murdered; and Binj, an easygoing comical figure. An Arab who works in Abu-Lias’ restaurant, Binj wants to leave Ajami and live in Tel Aviv with his Israeli girlfriend.
Believe it or not, all these will tie together in an unexpected climax that will leave you talking long after you leave the theater.
“Ajami” isn’t the best-produced movie you will sees this year. The story drags at times as the directors are busy giving you all the clues you need, or think you need, to follow what’s happening. And the setting is very stark; except for a kitchen scene with Binj, there are no light moments in this film.
But “Ajami” does offer glimpses of how Jews and Arabs in Israel today, as well as Israeli Arabs and West Bank Arabs, get along. Some of the observations may surprise you.
“Ajami” may be best compared to the 1991 American film “Boyz N the Hood.” It, too, is a hard, no varnish look at ethnic minorities and how they live their everyday life under dangers that could destroy them at any time. “Ajami” isn’t an easy film to watch, but it should be watched just the same.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 412-687-1000 Ext. 304.)