An Israeli ‘Crash,’ with higher stakes
It’s much too easy to call “Ajami’’ an Arab-Israeli “Crash,’’ but it’s a pretty good place to start. For one thing, the awards freight train is running in the right direction: The film is nominated for the best foreign language Oscar and recently took all the major trophies at Israel’s Ophir Awards. For another, the narrative structure follows the fashionable tinkertoy blueprint of multiple characters and fractured chronology. We strain not only to figure out where we are but when and with whom.
Yet for once all that busy pulp metafiction feels earned, because the characters in “Ajami’’ - average Palestinians and Israelis trying, and mostly failing, to live without hatred - share a daily struggle to grasp the big picture. The film has been co-written and directed by Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, Arab and Jew, respectively, and the fact that both men are seeing and telling the same tale is a measure of progress. (So is the movie’s box-office success in Israel.) In bearing witness to the divide, “Ajami’’ hopes to narrow it.
Good intentions are one thing, of course, and good writing and filmmaking another. “Ajami’’ is lucky to have all three. We’re quickly swept into the rhythms and cosmic cruelties of life in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, the mostly Palestinian ghetto suburb of Tel Aviv. In the opening scene, a young man is shot to death while working on his car in the street - the wrong man, it turns out. From this one bumbled revenge killing, the film’s many tentacles spread.
The intended target was Omar (Shahir Kabaha), an average, easygoing Ajami youth whose uncle made the mistake of shooting a Bedouin gangbanger in self-defense; to escape the vendetta, Omar asks the local Mr. Big (Youssef Sahwani) to broker peace at a ruinously high price. Meanwhile, Malek (Ibrahim Frege), a naive young illegal from the Palestinian territories who works at Mr. Big’s restaurant, needs cash to pay for his ailing mother’s bone-marrow transplant. As “Ajami’’ barrels forward with the crisp fatalism of a sun-drenched noir, Omar and Malek are drawn closer together.
A parallel story line follows Dando (Eran Naim), a hulking Israeli cop whose kid brother has disappeared from an army base in what is almost certainly a political kidnapping. “Ajami’’ toggles between seeing Dando from the Arab point of view (a threatening bull) and as his family and friends see him (a big softy). The tragedy is that both views are correct; without straining, the film applies Jean Renoir’s first law of life - “everyone has his reasons’’ - to the Gordian knot of Arab-Israeli relations.
The multi-character/shuffled time-frame genre has to rely on coincidence if it’s to have any dramatic impact: The right people have to cross paths at precisely the wrong time. That can feel forced in a heavily scripted movie like “Crash,’’ but “Ajami’’ uses improvisation and a well-chosen cast of unprofessionals to keep things achingly real. Kabaha’s Omar is the linchpin, a young man who just wants to have a future and can’t figure out why it’s increasingly denied him. He isn’t even present at the events that conspire to unman him, like an escalating confrontation between an Israeli yuppie and a bunch of street toughs over a noisy goat. In a profoundly neu rotic society, the tiniest spark can catch fire.
Ironically, the film’s greatest wall isn’t between religions or ethnicities - it just looks that way - but between generations. The young men in “Ajami’’ are worldly, Internet-savvy, and, in theory, unfettered; it’s the elders who drag them into the ancient blood wars. A sequence in which Omar is brought before a Bedouin tribal court is an astonishing vision of the 21st century brought to heel by a medievalism that refuses to let go.
The most fraught figures are those who attempt to bridge the gulf, like Omar’s friend Binj (played by co-director Copti), a hipster with a Jewish girlfriend, or Hadir (Ranin Karim), a blithe teenage girl who mistakes her father’s open-mindedness for permission to fall in love with whomever she wants. To be young and tolerant in the Middle East, the movie insists, is to be slapped down hard.
“Ajami’’ seethes with discontent at the distance between the world its characters live in and a better world just beyond their reach. That the movie itself brings that other world infinitesimally closer is just enough hope to hang your heart on.