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Time Out says
Tue Jun 15 2010Drugs. Cops. Gang warfare. It could be New York, London, or even Baltimore (as devotees of ‘The Wire’ know only too well). However ‘Ajami’ is a neighbourhood in Jaffa, a bustling and ancient Israeli port officially conjoined with Tel-Aviv. Given that it’s one of the places where Jews and Arabs live side by side, it also presents a microcosm of the divisions affecting the region. And, needless to say, that scenario makes the law enforcement situation a lot more complicated, since the largely Jewish police force are seen as occupiers by the Arab population they’re supposed to be protecting.
That arresting combination of the familiar and unfamiliar is a constant in this ensemble drama from the cross-cultural writing and directing team of Jewish Yaron Shani and Israeli-resident Palestinian Scandar Copti. The story, for instance, hits what’s become almost a movie default mode, tracking sundry criss-crossing fortunes in a compact cityscape, yet on this occasion it’s the perfect form to map out the tensions bringing very different individuals to collision point.
At one extreme, there’s the Palestinian son desperate to buy his way out of a bloody family feud with another Arab clan, and turning to risky drug-dealing as a result. At the other, there’s an Israeli cop facing a daily round of friction and resentment at work, and whose life has been on hold ever since his soldier sibling went missing – possibly murdered by a Palestinian terror group. Between these two poles, meet a partying Palestinian sous-chef whose Jewish girlfriend causes tension with his Arab mate, and a restaurant owner who’s a Christian Arab but takes a precarious, paternalistic interest in the lives of his Arab workers (some legal, some not).
Everything begins and ends in gunfire, but between times there’s a steady build-up in anxiety and understanding, since it’s only by realising the limited options available in these characters’ circumstances that we can put ourselves in their position and begin to feel for them.
Unlike, say, ‘Waltz with Bashir’ and ‘Lebanon’, there’s no sense of redemptive Jewish liberal guilt, nor a micron of false optimism. It’s one big political and personal cluster-fuck, but it’s only through comprehending the component parts of this dire scenario that anyone can move forward. Authenticity’s not in doubt, since the actors are non-professionals playing roles close to their own lives, and what we see is multi-camera first-take spontaneity sprung from months of workshops rather than a screenplay.
Perhaps the occasionally elaborate structure feels like it’s over-gilding the lily when the basic power of the events is plain enough. Otherwise, though, this is vividly challenging, utterly inclusive and heartfelt cinema. It’s not only gripping to watch, but it’ll open your eyes to the intractable human conundrums behind the blood-stained headlines.
Author: Trevor Johnston