Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

The multi-ethnic neighborhood of Jaffa, Israel is the backdrop for the dramatic collision of three different worlds – Muslim, Jew and Christian. Brothers in fear for their lives from a crime boss wounded by their loose cannon uncle, a young refugee tries to scrape the money together for a life-saving operation for his mother, a Jewish cop is desperate to find his long-missing brother and an affluent Palestinian simply wants a peaceful life with his Israeli girlfriend in the conclave called “Ajami.”

First-time feature filmmakers, Tel Aviv born writers-directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shari make an assured debut with a political crime drama that deals with the multi-cultural inhabitants of the Ajami ‘hood. The huge cast fills out the complex many-threaded story as survival, revenge, romance, faith versus reality and a religious triangle – Muslim, Jew and Christian – are all part of the social microcosm of the Middle East.

The story is divided into five chapters, introducing the different characters and their stories in each. The chapters flash back and forth weaving the lives of the players together into a rich tapestry. It is deft filmmaking and storytelling by the tyro directing team. I cannot wait to see their follow up works. I give it a B+.

Tel Aviv - a place where Jews live alongside Arabs, where Muslim Arabs divide themselves from Christian Arabs and where Palestinian refugees live underground.  One Arab family lives in fear of retaliation from another after an uncle shoots a young troublemaker who was waving his gun in his cafe.  A Christian Arab tries to mediate while his daughter pines for the family's eldest, Muslim son Omar (Shahir Kabaha).  Malek (Ibrahim Frege), the refugee who works in the same restaurant as Omar, becomes caught up in the illegal circumstances of his and another coworker trying to obtain money for surgery for his dying mother back home.  A Jewish policeman, Dando (Eran Naim), responds to the fatal shooting of an Israeli and ends up connecting the dots among all these people in the neighborhood called "Ajami."

First time feature cowriter/directors Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, an Israeli and Palestinian, worked together for seven years crafting these interlocking tales, winning many Israeli film awards and a special mention Camera D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for their efforts.  If at first, "Ajami" seems like many other films dealing with Middle East conflicts, these young filmmakers show maturity in how they have crafted their script, building layers of perspective that shift and change as they change points of view.

The film is divided into a prologue, four chapters and a 'final' chapter.  Omar's younger brother Nasri (Fouad Habash), whose sporadically intercut drawings illustrate the film as graphic novel, narrates as Copti and Shani jolt our attention with the drive by shooting of Nasri's young neighbor, outside fixing the car he recently bought from Omar.  In Chapter One, Nasri tells us the back story of why his family is at risk, but how his stubborn brother refuses to leave their home.  It is shocking to see the deal making that progresses under the mediation of Anan (Hilal Kabob) - 3,000 dinar for a 3 day cease fire in which to discuss how to move forward.  A judgement comes down that Omar must pay 33,000 dinar ($57,000) to settle the score, a fee which will double after fourteen days.  What madness this?!

In Chapter Two, we meet Malek, the young refugee who works (and hides) at Abu-Lias' (Youssef Sahwani) restaurant learns via video at the 16th birthday celebration thrown by his employers that his mother is desperately ill.  Later, at his buddy Binj's (Scandar Copti), he sees drugs worth 3x what he needs for his mother's surgery being hidden in an amplifier.  Circumstances lead Malek and Omar to team up and try to score some quick cash with the white powder.  Chapter Three brings in the law in the form of Dando, a cop being pulled in all directions, his absences resented by a harried wife, his missing brother haunting him and keeping his father bedridden in depression. Routine calls can escalate into neighborhood riots, but the calls which begin and end his chapter reverberate through many personal histories.  Chapter Four sheds surprising light on events which have already transpired and reveals another side of the charismatic Binj as he is berated for his desire to move in with a Jewish girlfriend. The final chapter offers an even bigger surprise while bringing us full circle to the innocent voice which launched us into this tale.

It is astonishing to consider that not only is this a first film, but that its large ensemble is made up of nonprofessional actors.  Copti and Shani show considerable talent for pacing and build.  Their gradual layering of detail and character motivation sucks one in then delivers several sucker punches. They have chosen the style of filmmaking that puts the audience in the trenches, a documentary style that doesn't take time outs for pretty cutaways or artsy pretension.  "Ajami" is more compelling for the story it is telling and the construction of that story than for any original visual flourishes.  The cast are utterly natural (the filmmakers sent actors into scenes outfitted with new motivations not revealed to the rest of the actors to achieve spontaneity).  Contrast Israel's foreign film Oscar entree (and nominee) against Canada's ("I Killed My Mother"), another first film from a very young director, one a documentary style epic, the other an artsy primal scream, and start to become excited about a whole new generation of filmmakers from unexpected places.

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