“Ajami” a portrait of personal strife amidst Israeli-Palestinian tensions

By Lily Hicks

“Ajami” is a film about Israeli-Palestinian tensions directed by one of the unlikeliest pairs Middle Eastern cinema has ever seen: Scandar Copti, a Christian Palestinian from Israel, and Yaron Shani, an Israeli Jew. The result is a film that refuses to pick sides; that instead engages the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a micro level; it tells the stories of children, families and lovers who are caught, sometimes literally, in the crossfire.

For a news-savvy moviegoer, someone who likely reads about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict nearly everyday in the “World News” section of the paper, Copti’s and Shani’s sentimentality can make the viewer feel robbed of any substantive context. Grief and suffering, while experienced by Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims, Christians and Jews, has to be largely accounted for by one side and one side only…don’t they? Copti and Shani would argue otherwise. Their insight into the universality of human grief and their suggestion of mutual guilt is a statement bold enough, and possibly true enough, to earn “Ajami” a 2010 Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.

The movie is told through a series of flashbacks and flash forwards detailing the lives of Israelis and Palestinians living and working, sometimes illegally, in the Jaffa district of greater Tel Aviv, Israel. Nasri, a young Muslim resident of Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood, serves as the film’s narrator and begins his story by recounting the killing of his neighbor. The murder, a case of mistaken identity in which Nasri’s older brother Omar was the intended victim, was meant to be a punitive action against Omar’s uncle, who killed a member of the prominent Arab Abul-Zen clan.

Following the murder, Omar struggles to protect himself and his family, eventually amassing a debt for which he cannot possibly pay by any legal means. In attempts to gather funds, Omar reels in a tangled mass of other characters experiencing their own personal crises. Omar’s co-worker Malek, a young Palestinian man who crosses the Israeli border illegally to earn money for his mother’s surgery, is one such character. Another cast member enmeshed in the action is Dando, an Israeli cop who grapples with the tasks of work and fatherhood while devastated by the absence of his missing brother, an Israeli soldier.

The majority of the cast are Jaffa locals with no previous acting experience, but their greenness is near-impossible to discern from one compelling performance to the next. Inside each portrayal is a profound authenticity, likely due to the directors’ careful casting of actors with backgrounds similar to their corresponding characters. Eran Naim, who plays Dando, is himself a 16-year Israeli police veteran.

Although “Ajami” demonstrates ingenuity on many levels, there are aspects of the film that are disappointingly familiar. For example, Omar has a secret love affair with his boss’ daughter, a beautiful young Christian Arab whose father is overbearing and vastly intolerant when it comes to the religion of her potential spouse. Yawn. Yet another Arab character, Banj, falls miraculously in love with a Jewish woman and his friends chide him for it. “Go with her; talk Hebrew to your kids,” his friend says mockingly.

Despite some tired romantic subplots, the underlying messages of “Ajami,” messages of collective suffering and the tragedy of prejudice, are communicated with power and grace. The acting is moving, the sets are strikingly real, and the various stories are masterfully connected by film’s end. At once raw and suspenseful and delicately poignant, there is little wonder as to why “Ajami” has received international acclaim. 

Lily Hicks can be reached at [email protected]