“Ajami”: Israel’s gritty answer to “Crash”

A pulse-pounding, Oscar-nominated Israeli-Arab collaboration captures the street-level reality of conflict

Topics: Ajami, Israel, Michael Haneke, Oscars, The White Ribbon, Middle East, Movies,

"Ajami": Israel's gritty answer to "Crash"Ranin Karim as Hadir and Shahir Kabaha as Omar in a scene from AJAMI, a film by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani.  Courtesy of Kino International.

I’m afraid it sounds like damning with faint praise to compare the Israeli Oscar-nominated film “Ajami” to Paul Haggis’ “Crash,” but, honestly, it’s just a frame of reference. (Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God” will do almost as well.) “Ajami” is almost entirely free of the coruscating sentimentality and absurd coincidence that defined Haggis’ Oscar sweeper, and its intimate vision of lives lived on both sides of the Arab-Jewish dividing line is sympathetic but overwhelmingly tragic. Set mainly in the eponymous neighborhood of Jaffa, the largely Arab town just south of Tel Aviv, “Ajami” uses its episodic structure, overlapping chronologies and large ensemble cast to depict interlocking communities that live in close physical proximity yet remain alien to each other and trapped in a cycle of pointless, bitter violence.

It’s easy to be cynical about the foreign-language Academy Award, given its history of rewarding pretty, heartwarming vapidity. “Ajami” might sound at first more like a publicity gimmick with laudable social goals than a legitimate work of art: a film co-directed by an Israeli, Yaron Shani, and a Palestinian, Scandar Copti, that tries to capture the two communities’ tormented coexistence. But “Ajami” is neither pretty nor heartwarming: It begins and ends with scenes of young boys shot down on the street, both of them ending up as cruel footnotes to a stupid misunderstanding.

Shot in what might be called the “international style” of independent film — a hand-held, eye-level camera, mostly in medium close-up — “Ajami” has a large cast that mixes Israeli professionals and neighborhood recruits. Cinematographer Boaz Yehonatan Yacov (who also shot the remarkable “My Father, My Lord”) captures the streets, living rooms and restaurants of Jaffa in near-documentary detail, and this pays off at the level of character complexity and social context. Inexplicable and unforgivable things happen in “Ajami”: We see an Israeli cop about to shoot an unarmed underage suspect in the head, and an Arab man stab a Jewish neighbor in the heart during an insignificant street argument. Shani and Copti’s central strategy is to show us these crimes and then, through their cut-up, back-and-forth chronology, explain how they happened.



In no sense is this movie some kind of lily-livered apologetic for violence on either side; indeed, in depicting all their characters as human beings with family lives and recognizable wants and needs, Shani and Copti also depict them as people in the grip of a near-hopeless pathology. If there are two central characters in “Ajami,” they are Omar (Shahir Kabaha), a Jaffa teenager whose family is deeply in debt to a dangerous Bedouin crime family, and Dando (Eran Naim), a stocky Tel Aviv cop and family man whose brother has gone missing in action in the Palestinian territories. Neither is an ideological or religious zealot; neither is consumed with hatred for the other side. But long years of war and hatred have taught them where to direct their anger.

Omar and Dando will eventually collide during a drug bust gone wrong in a Tel Aviv parking garage, an event we see multiple times from multiple perspectives. Along the way, Omar’s next-door neighbor is shot by the Bedouins (who take him for Omar), his cosmopolitan friend Binj (played by co-director Copti) — an Arab who plans to move in with his Jewish girlfriend — meets an ambiguous end after a police raid, and Dando’s missing brother is found dead in a West Bank cave while his personal effects turn up on Jaffa’s black market. Throw in a sinister Christian-Arab godfather figure, a wide-eyed kid from the territories who’s trying to raise money for his mom’s bone marrow transplant, and the cops who rule Ajami with an iron fist, and you’ve got a multistrand potboiler worthy of an Israeli Dickens.

In an Oscar category that also includes Michael Haneke’s “White Ribbon” and Jacques Audiard’s “Prophet” (which opens in late February), “Ajami” might not be the best film or the likely winner. But it’s still a remarkable accomplishment, a swirling, choral sea of humanity that forces us to confront that a man who does terrible things can also be a loving father who gives his infant daughter a bath. There’s no prescription for coexistence amid the fateful swirl of passion, cruelty and violence in “Ajami,” and certainly no assurance that things are getting better. For Copti, Shani and the rest of us, though, the fact that a bunch of Jews and Arabs got together to make this powerful film has to mean something.

“Ajami” is now playing at Film Forum and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, with wider release to follow.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>