This week I’m reviewing an independent foreign film of the kind which is possibly only showing in a cinema several miles away from you, but do not complain, as the walk will do you good and also put colour in your cheeks. This film is Ajami, and while it is set in one of those male-dominated communities defined by crime, violence and drug-taking and I am growing weary of films about male-dominated communities defined by crime, violence and drug-taking (Gomorrah, A Prophet, and so on) I am happy to forgive it because the sun is out, which always makes me cheerful, and because there are no vuvuzelas in it, which has to be good. Also, it is exceptional, and well worth the walk.
Written and directed by Scandar Copti, a Palestinian Israeli, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew, the film takes its name from a small neighbourhood in Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, where the crime and unemployment rates are high, and religious conflict is rife. Jews, Arabs, Christians and Muslims all live here and feel no need to rub along. This is not a film promoting the idea of peaceful co-existence. It isn’t about teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony (minus vuvuzelas, obviously). Instead, its tone is one of regret; regret for such sectarian divide, the mentality it fosters, the futility of it and the lives so needlessly lost.
There are no actors. Copti and Shani workshopped 300 members of the actual community, over a period of ten months, and cast those whose own lives best meshed with the characters they had in mind. Each character has his own story, and each story intertwines with the others, but in ways that are not immediately apparent, as the narrative shifts back and forth in time. You have to wait for hidden connections to reveal themselves. It isn’t structurally unique (Crash, and so on) but it does work brilliantly. This is why you should walk to that independent cinema. You can also drive, of course, but this will not bring colour to your cheeks, and also it isn’t eco-friendly. (You must think about the environment, you know, because it certainly thinks about you. It’s already asked me what you would like for your birthday. I said a tie. I do hope that is all right.)
The film begins when a young man is gunned down in the street while working on his car. It’s a vendetta killing, but they’ve shot the wrong guy. This sets off various reprisals, like one of those little steel balls ricocheting around a pinball machine. Aside from one character — Abu-Lias (Youssef Sahwani), the sly restaurant owner — these are decent individuals forced to terrible things when their group identity takes over. Omar (Shahir Kabaha) is a sweet-natured 19-year-old, who has to fight the criminal vendetta against his family. Malek (Ibrahim Frege) is a childlike Palestinian refugee working illegally to finance his mother’s life-saving surgery. Binj (Scandar Copti) is an affluent Palestinian who is fond of cocaine and hopes to marry his Jewish girlfriend. Dando (Eran Naim) is a Jewish police detective obsessed with finding his missing brother. They are seen from all sides. Dando may be a brute on the job but, at home, he is a loving father, seen tenderly giving his infant daughter a bath.
Ajami is not pretty and it’s not heart-warming — the threat of violence is always looming — but it is emotionally gripping, and it puts you right in its midst. Shot in documentary-style detail, on hand-held cameras, it gives you a real feel for the hum and throb and rhythm of the place, and the people who inhabit it, as performed by the people who actually do inhabit it. The characters have lived this, and this is where they live, so it always feels true and urgent, as if it’s happening in front of you, right now. I would ask, though, why no woman has a role beyond tangential girlfriend or mother weeping over a corpse. This seems a loss, as they must have stories, too. But as a tragedy that is almost biblical — for reasons that are centuries old, Omar and Malek and Binj and Dando are all trapped in a cycle of bitter, pointless violence — it has heart and takes you somewhere you have never been before. Walk. Drive. Take the bus. Just go.