A contemporary crime drama edged with Greek tragedy, Ajami is an untidy, despairing, oddly exhilarating joint venture by writer-directors Scandar Copti, an Israeli Arab, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. Though its unwieldy cast and multiple storylines might better lend themselves to a television series, the movie teems with life, energized by fierce formal ambitions that must have provoked cardiac arrest in its insurance underwriters, never mind any casual onlookers of the partially improvised location shoot in a rundown quarter of the Tel Aviv–adjacent city of Jaffa. The mostly non-pro cast is drawn from the neighborhood, a tinderbox where Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians from the occupied territories seeking work rub shoulders with volcanic unease.
Barely held together by chapter headings, the action switches dizzyingly between time, place, and point of view. The movie opens smack in the middle of its converging storylines with a mistaken drive-by shooting whose victim is an innocent boy working on a decrepit car. Indeed, almost all of the casualties piling up in Ajami are young, sucked willy-nilly into the fraying tempers of this inner-city area barely controlled by exhausted and demoralized Israeli police.
Making a film filled with crucial cultural nuances, Copti, who grew up in Jaffa, and Shani may have bitten off more than a foreign audience can chew. That fact works its own sadly ironic magic—you can’t tell one kind of Semite protagonist from another just by looking. Omar (Shahir Kabaha), a young Muslim Israeli Arab caught up in his family’s war with Bedouin mobsters, speaks in a slangy goulash of Arabic and Hebrew that testifies to the identity conflicts he juggles, as does his furtive courtship of the beautiful daughter of the Christian Arab bigwig (Youssef Sahwani) who offers him temporary protection from the Bedouin. Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a sweet-faced teenager from occupied Palestine, works illegally in Israel to raise money for his mother’s urgent surgery. The affluent Palestinian Binj (played by Copti) dreams of escaping to live with his Jewish girlfriend in Tel Aviv, while the pugnacious Israeli cop Dando (played by Eran Naim, himself a former policeman), obsessed with an ongoing search for his missing soldier brother, has a reckless trigger finger.
The bleak future Ajami projects for peace within and across Israel’s borders can be hard to bear, but this is an enormously important film, and not just because it’s the result of a collaboration between putative enemies, was partly funded with Israeli money, won Best Picture at the Israeli Ophir Awards, and is shortlisted for an Academy Award. Israeli films have made enormous formal and aesthetic strides in the last decade, and Ajami—along with The Band’s Visit, Beaufort, Waltz With Bashir, and other recent critical darlings—is notable for its innovative style, its willingness to entertain, its attentiveness to other genres than linear-narrative realism, and its departure from the conventional war pictures that have dominated Israeli cinema for decades.
A new generation of Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers is measuring the terrible toll of war not only in lost lives, but also in the destruction of the very fabric of everyday life, for Arabs as well as Jews. To the extent that its sympathies lie with the occupied and with those who must do the work of enforcing occupation, Ajami brings a warmly generous spirit to its subjects, almost all of whom become gangsters by default. No one is demonized or sanctified. The movie’s sensibilities are humanistic, but a political dimension, however implicit, is inescapable in this fragile web of enmities and allegiances. Still, Ajami keeps its head close to the ground of families and communities eroded by unrelenting stress and danger—among the casualties of war also lie the ashes of intimacy and trust. With luck, the joint efforts of the film’s makers may also offer hope.